Once Tuesday’s second half at Alabama began, Alex Len started to fade away. First he missed a two-handed dunk, the type normally flushed with authority, accompanied by some sort of primal yell. Then he gathered a post-entry pass in the mid-post, struggled to make a move and finally air-balled a fadeaway jumper. His third touch ended with a spinning, out-of-control offensive foul.
Maryland’s sophomore center has been here before, when small mistakes like a blown dunk spiral into larger issues, like disappearing for entire halves. But to his credit, Len followed up that three-possession disaster with a layup and a dunk, climbing back on the horse as the Terps expanded their lead to 10 points.
Facing comparable bodies like Crimson Tide center Moussa Gueye helped Len attain his first double-double since Jan. 22 against Boston College. His 13 rebounds and five blocked shots, including a game-saving swat with four seconds left, tied season-highs. Even while bricking two crucial free throws with 27 seconds left, Len was assertive and confident against Alabama, fighting for position rather than allowing smaller defenders to impose their will.
“Well he’s just growing up,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “They had big bodies to bang on. That helps Alex. Not a 6-4 guy getting underneath him. He stuck with it.”
A one-man roulette wheel this season, Len has struggled in both losses (four points at Boston College and Florida State) and wins (five points against Denver and Wake Forest). His play hasn’t dictated Maryland’s success, mostly because the Terps have learned to win without him. Len’s season-low 14 minutes and five points against the Pioneers last week proved that.
Still, it’s never a bad thing to receive production from your 7-foot-1 future NBA lottery pick. Len’s overall numbers haven’t dipped during postseason play – 11.5 points per game, 56.8 percent shooting – and his 20-point effort against North Carolina was his highest scoring output since the season-opener. That the Terps beat Niagara and Denver despite receiving just 13 combined points from Len, though, shows plenty about their flexibility under circumstances that render Len a secondary act.
The Alabama game offered Len a chance to string together consecutive strong halves without fading to black. His splits – six points, six rebounds, three blocks in the first half, nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks in the second half – were solid.
“You have a rim protector, a 7-footer, it’s always good for your defense,” Dez Wells said. “We really had a chance to step up and he made big plays for us.”
After taking a few days off from practice at Turgeon’s behest and working out with the post players on Saturday, Len at the very least took a step in the right direction.
“Exactly,” Len said. “We play tough, we play strong. I think this is the best win on the road this season. Just have to build on it too.”
But he hasn’t scored 15 points in two straight games since Jan. 5-9 against Virginia Tech and Florida State. Those missed free throws could have cost the Terps the game, even if that blocked shot atoned for matters later. And now he returns to New York City, site of that 23-point, 12-rebound game against Kentucky that snowballed expectations. For whatever reason, Len has been markedly better on bigger stages this season – Kentucky and Duke come to mind – and will have Iowa centers Adam Woodbury (7-foot-1) and Gabriel Olaseni (6-foot-10) to battle against inside.
Like his teammates, Len has matured since the postseason began, especially against bigger lineups. But for a player who’s frustrated fans and coaches alike with the same unpredictability all season, the true magic trick would be steadiness in the Big Apple.