Fielding such a young and inexperienced team, each day seems to break new territory for Maryland. A 13-game winning streak during nonconference play fell one short of tying the program’s longest, but seems all too distant by now. Thursday, the Terrapins secured their first ACC road win in exactly one year, grinding out a slugfest at Virginia Tech.
Even through the hardships and inconsistencies, Maryland rode its intensity, relying on, if nothing else, an unmatched energy catalyzed by seven underclassmen. Mistakes derived from rushed offense or over-eager defense, the cliche “trying to do too much” often rearing its ugly head.
But never this season have the Terps seemed as lost and lethargic, consistently a half-step behind Virginia throughout an 80-69 defeat at Comcast Center. For the first time all season, Maryland was outrebounded. For the first time since Feb. 4, 2012, Maryland allowed 80 points at home. And for the first time since mounting expectations reenergized a fan base starved for success, Maryland seemed utterly out of sync.
Credit the red-hot Cavaliers for bulldozing through College Park with a blistering shooting performance. Joe Harris (22 points on 7-of-8 shooting), Justin Anderson (career-high 17 points and nine rebounds), Akil Mitchell (13 points on 4-of-6 shooting) and Paul Jesperson (12 points, all on second-half three-pointers) were all exceptional from the field. But the Terps seemed lackluster, slightly slow on loose balls and baffled altogether with Virginia’s packed-in defense, unable to muster anything but dribble-drive layups for most of the afternoon.
“Playing at home, in front of a great crowd, guys have to be ready to go,” senior guard Logan Aronhalt said. “We weren’t ready to go. We didn’t bring all we had to bring today. At home, we’ve been too good at home to let that happen.
“It really opened some guys’ eyes now. It’s gotten so late in the season. There’s no more next game. It’s got to be right now.”
After squeaking out a 60-55 win over the Hokies in Blacksburg, Va., on Thursday, the Terps battled stormy weather and rough terrain on their ride home, pulling into the Comcast Center loading dock around 4 a.m. After two solid practices, the Terps marched in Saturday prepared to earn their first three-game winning streak since stringing together 13 earlier this season. Instead, Coach Mark Turgeon saw the glazed looks of an unprepared team, one that wound up shooting 29.4 percent from the three-point line and 55.6 percent from the free throw line.
Maryland tied things up at 28 just before halftime, but Virginia entered the break up 35-29 after a nifty reverse layup from Evan Nolte. The canyon only widened after intermission. The Terps chopped the lead to single digits on multiple occasions, but came no closer than eight down the stretch.
“I thought we were a half-step slow,” Turgeon said. “I thought they were real physical, held their box-outs. We didn’t handle the physicality early very well. It was their day. It was their day. Definitely wasn’t ours.”
Maryland’s remaining journey can either become a road to redemption or a slippery slope toward the NIT. The Terps will receive a soul-searching six-day break before facing Duke, which appears poised to regain its spot as the nation’s top-ranked team.
Turgeon will have a tricky task on his hands, balancing the disappointment of the loss to Virginia with the enthusiasm of hosting the Blue Devils for perhaps the last time. Coach Tony Bennett’s defense baffled Maryland’s offense all afternoon with flurries of double-teams and post denials. Not even a guard-heavy full-court press defense could save the Terps from having a surprising 80 points hung on them by the bubble’s biggest enigma.
“It’s going to be a good week,” Aronhalt said. “Coach is already talking about it. We don’t have a game, so we’ll be getting after it. We’ve got Duke coming in Saturday, so guys have to be ready to go. If they’re not, I don’t know what’s wrong.
“I don’t know if there’s anything that can save them from that.”