The elbow caught Alex Len squarely in his chest and the whistles blew, a referee approaching both Maryland’s sophomore center and his Wake Forest jabber inside the lane, presumably telling the two feisty players to “keep it cool” or “quit that malarkey” or something along those lines.
Devin Thomas, a freshman for the Demon Deacons and younger brother to Maryland women’s star Alyssa Thomas, marched into Comcast Center on Wednesday afternoon and matched up against Len, seeking a shot against a budding NBA lottery pick. Even with his added offseason poundage, Len could still be tossed around inside, bullied and bodied by opponents looking to neutralize the Terps’ biggest asset.
So when Thomas tossed a harmless elbow Len’s way early in the first half, nothing more malicious than a bump looking to clear some space, Len took umbrage.
“I think Alex is a quiet kid,” Logan Aronhalt said. “He keeps it on the inside. When he sets the tone like that early in the game, I know he’s ready to go and he’s going to have a good game.”
No fouls were issued other than a stern warning, but he approached Thomas and barely touched foreheads, as if to say, “I’m coming.” That, Coach Mark Turgeon later said, lit a fire underneath the tree. Just days after turning in arguably his worst performance of the season and earning a stern rebuke from Turgeon, Len shot 6-for-7 from the field, scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds. What’s more, he dished three assists and swatted as many shots, imposing his will against hapless Wake Forest, which wound up losing by 26 points.
Len flashed the full-court speed that has professional scouts drooling, twice trailing the break for easy second-chance dunks, when somehow the Demon Deacons never got a body on the 7-footer lumbering down the floor. But it all tied back to that elbow, Turgeon said.
“I think that got him going,” Turgeon said of the elbow. “I was screaming, don’t back down, don’t back down, be tough Alex. Sometimes you got to do that for your guys. We talk about Alex protecting the rim, be a presence. He was a big-time presence today. He only had [three] blocks, but affected a lot of plays.”
Defense seems to be a bigger focus with Len. The offense will come, the Terps reason, just like it has the majority of this season. Sure, consistency remains an issue — Len will often disappear for extended stretches – but becoming a stable shot-altering force in the paint is far easier.
“Today before the game, I was focusing on playing as hard as I could defensively, guarding hard at the rim,” Len said. “I wasn’t worrying about offense at all.”
Having his fellow frontcourt mates step up – James Padgett, for instance, made all six field-goal attempts – certainly helped take the pressure off Len. Even when Wake Forest finally began double teaming early in the second half, Len simply passed over his shorter defenders.
On Maryland’s opening three possessions in the second half, Len had two assists, first on a corner three-pointer to Jake Layman and then an easy weakside layup to Padgett, then slammed home a missed layup by Nick Faust in transition. It was one of his best sequences this season.
“I don’t think he’s been happy with himself these past couple games,” Layman said. “He came out with a killer instinct tonight.”