Postgame: Another growing-up moment sends Terps into NIT semifinals

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.– As a crowded Coleman Coliseum grew louder, everything about Maryland’s latest triumph felt like it would slip away.

Dez Wells twice stumbled into turnovers that quickened the racing hearts in the black jerseys. Six weeks ago, these Terps might have folded. Against a power-conference opponent with 12 straight home wins, with a National Invitation Tournament semifinal berth on the line, they might have cracked beneath the pressure. Yes, Maryland bent. It committed late turnovers and missed crucial free throws, opening the door for the Crimson Tide to flood through. But by not breaking, the Terps punched their ticket to Madison Square Garden with a 58-57 win, the  goal ever since coming to terms with missing the NCAA tournament.

“It’s big,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “And to hold on and get it, it’s big. It’s hard to win in college basketball, and for us to do that, we had a lot of guts defensively. It’s good to see. And to do this without Seth [Allen], Seth’s been pretty important for us. He’s the one guy who could have taken a lot of pressure off us in the press, could have broke down their defense a little bit.

“We had a lot of guys step up and play well for us. We knew that if we lost, we were done, but if we won we wouldn’t play for a week, so we played guys a lot of minutes, especially in the second half. I thought we stayed pretty fresh throughout the game. Big win for us.”

The win, Maryland’s 25th for the first time since 2006-07, sends the Terps back to New York, where they began their season against Kentucky in November. Despite a maddening, roller-coaster ACC slate, Maryland is playing its toughest, most consistent basketball at the best time, stringing together its first three-game win streak since nonconference play.

The mistakes, while glaring, never proved costly enough to end its season. Nick Faust bit on a pump fake at the buzzer, but Trevor Lacey’s potential game-winner bounced off the rim. Alex Len opened the second half with a rough sequence – missed dunk, air-balled mid-range jumper, offensive foul – but finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, his first double-double since Jan. 22. Pe’Shon Howard and Jake Layman each hit key three-pointers, and Wells was his usual dominant self for most of the evening.

“That’s the goal,” Howard said. “Great teams, they take a few runs, they take a few hits, but at the end of the day they find a way to win. At the end of the day, we made the two stops in the last 18 seconds or whatever. That’s what teams do. They find ways to win. It might not be pretty, it might not be a blowout like everyone wants or expects, but as long as you win, it’s just another win.”

Now the New York skyline beckons, an opportunity to both atone for the season-opening loss and conclude a once disappointing season with a title. As Wells said, “It’s not the NCAA, but NIT doesn’t sound too bad to me. We’re just ready to try to make a good run at a championship.”

Up 57-49 after consecutive Layman three-pointers, Alabama guard Rodney Cooper stuck an and-one layup on the opposite end. After trading turnovers, Howard fouled Nick Jacobs for another and-one opportunity, which cut the lead to 58-55. When Wells was whistled for another traveling violation, Trevor Releford brought the Crimson Tide within one point. And with the season at stake, Len bricked two free throws.

“We knew they’d pick it up.” Howard said. “It’s a win-or-go home type of situation. We knew they were going to make plays and we matched it. That’s one of our things, just trying to grow up and withstand teams. We knew they were going to tough, but we wanted to be tougher.”

After a timeout, Alabama bled the clock until Cooper beat Layman off the dribble and bolted for the rim. Len quickly met him and swatted the shot away, tying his season-high with five blocks. On the inbounds pass, Lacey curled around a screen to the left elbow. As Len hedged from the paint, Faust trailed the cutter. When Lacey gathered the pass and pumped faked, Faust went soaring, leaving Lacey alone for a mid-range jumper. It bounced twice off the rim before Wells snatched it and went bounding to his teammates, a semifinal berth in tow.

“Just really proud of my guys,” Turgeon said. “Our last three road games, we won at Wake Forest, lost in overtime at Virginia and now this one. We’ve been talking about trying to get a road win, and to get it in postseason against a team I thought should have been an NCAA tournament team is a tremendous win.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt · March 26, 2013