BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Here they huddled again, crowding around a dry-erase board with less than 10 seconds on the clock, an opportunity to steal a season-opening upset against a nationally ranked opponent at stake. Last season, the Maryland men’s basketball team botched its late-game execution against Kentucky, when the Terrapins needed a three-pointer but couldn’t even get one off. So down 78-77 to 18th-ranked Connecticut on Friday night, Coach Mark Turgeon kept things simple.
“We wanted to get Dez the ball,” he said. Minutes earlier, junior Dez Wells had pulled up for a mid-range jumper near the right elbow, cutting the lead to one point, and Turgeon wanted to run something similar. “I was hoping Dez would bully them down and get fouled and make a layup. We put shooters in the corner, but he didn’t feel like he could get closer.”
Wells curled off a double screen but found himself surrounded by four Huskies defenders. Three eventually backed off, but Wells was stranded behind the three-point line, forced to break down his defender. It seemed like Maryland planned for no other option but for Wells to drive, and when he saw a clogged lane, the guard pulled up inside the arc and watched his shot bounce out.
To condense Maryland’s loss to a missed shot, or even the final few possessions, would be to ignore the early sloppiness put forth, when 13 turnovers and poor offensive execution helped Connecticut balloon its lead to 17 points during the second half. Without Seth Allen (broken foot) at point guard, the Huskies’ speedy back court hounded Wells, freshman Roddy Peters and whoever else handled the ball.
“They’re good defenders,” Wells said. “They stole the ball from me a couple times and caused a couple deflections, but those are things that can be corrected. I can watch film, as soon as we get on the bus. It’s still looking up for us.”
But once again, playing at the Barclays Center in November with a late timeout to plan things and the basketball in their hands, the Terps fell short on their last try.
“It was a great shot,” said sophomore Charles Mitchell, who contributed 12 bench points for Maryland. “We believe in [Wells] taking those shots. We just have to move onto the next game.”
According to Turgeon, the Terps should never have called timeout in the first place. After Connecticut’s Terrence Samuel bricked his one-and-one attempt, the second crucial missed free throw by the Huskies in crunch time, junior Evan Smotrycz snagged the rebound and dribbled up the court. He had watched last season’s opener from inside the Comcast Center locker room back in College Park, ineligible per NCAA rules after transferring from Michigan, and saw his teammates emerge far too hectic on the national stage. As Samuel tied Smotrycz up, before the referee signaled for a jump ball, Smotrycz was begging for a timeout.
“With us, we’re kind of out of control sometimes,” said Smotrycz, whose 10 first-half points kept Maryland within striking distance. “I wanted to get it over half-court, call a timeout and draw something up.”
Turgeon said that never should have happened. Wells was streaking down the floor, parallel to Smotrycz but open along the left side. The possession before, Wells had taken Ryan Boatright’s missed free throw coast-to-coast and attempted a floater from the short-right corner. It missed badly, but Turgeon thought they had another chance when Samuel gifted the Terps new life.
“The part that was disappointing was Evan dribbling the ball up the court,” Turgeon added. “He should have thrown it to Dez right away. We get the ball to Dez with nine seconds or 11 seconds to go, going downhill, I think we’re probably going to get a good shot or get fouled or something’s going to happen. You don’t call timeout in that situation. They were able to set their defense.”
And so the Terps again fell one shot short in Brooklyn, again battling back from a double-digit deficit after halftime, again figuring out a way to climb from a hole they dug themselves during the first half. Now, they return to campus for Wednesday’s home opener against Abilene Christian, again feeling like a late opportunity slipped away.
“This would’ve been a great win, because I think Connecticut’s going to win a lot of games,” Turgeon said. “It’s Nov. 8. We’ve got so many ahead of us … Dez’s shot goes in, everyone’s talking about how good we are. It doesn’t go in, now everyone’s worried about whether we’re going to have signature wins.”