Alex Len caught the ball on the low block, back to the basket, ready to make a play. Georgia Tech center Daniel Miller greeted Len with a well-placed forearm. Len jabbed left. He faked right. He wheeled on his pivot foot towards the baseline, and hoisted a floater.
Five minutes into the first half, Miller, a 6-foot-11 junior announced his presence at McCamish Pavilion with his 200th career block. More importantly, he locked down Maryland’s biggest offensive weapon, Len, with his strength in Tech’s 78-68 win.
Len finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, a solid night in the box score. But Miller (16 points, 12 of 12 from the free-throw line) and Robert Carter Jr. (19 points and 10 rebounds) were better.
“I thought he got pushed around all night,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “I know he ended up with really good numbers .We ran some plays for him. He was good early, got some second-chance points. But I thought Miller got the best of him, kind of pushed him around all night.”
Notice a theme? Len worked hard this offseason to transform himself into a bruiser down low, and has displayed flashes of intensity and toughness this season. Take, for instance, that nasty reverse baseline slam he deposited on Mason Plumlee at Duke, or the tremendous game he hung on the Blue Devils in Maryland’s thrilling upset mere weeks ago.
Every so often, however, he’ll be challenged inside and back down. His post-up game turns into a square-up clinic, a 7-foot-1 center putting the ball on the floor and trying to drive by his front court defenders or float feathery step-back jumpers. Georgia Tech didn’t double. A solid body from Miller was all it needed.
“I thought we did a good job on him,” Yellow Jackets Coach Brian Gregory said. “He’s really good, and he’s so much more improved. We didn’t really double. I have a lot of faith in Daniel, a lot of faith in Robert defending him and just trying to force him out, trying to make him score over and through us. Not sure he scored on many post moves.”
Of course, the onus doesn’t fall exclusively on Len. While Miller kept attacking the basket and earning trips to the charity stripe, Carter was busy displaying his own dominance. Maryland’s Shaquille Cleare turned in a solid first half with seven points and five rebounds, but had just one rebound and no points the rest of the game. James Padgett (two points in 15 minutes) and Charles Mitchell (two points in 17 minutes and only two defensive rebounds) were similarly held in check.
“Carter, he played great today,” Len said. “We couldn’t stop him. He was doing the same move and we didn’t guard him. They were really good today, making their shots, and we couldn’t make them.”
• As Maryland trudged through the McCamish Pavilion tunnel and into its locker room, somber from another ACC road loss, two Terps fans shrieked for Mitchell. Jogging by, the freshman forward looked up, high-fived them and continued on.
Mitchell, who graduated from Wheeler High School just a half-hour north of Georgia Tech’s campus and lived, in his words, a “20-minute walk” from the arena, had 40 family members in attendance, creating a sizable Maryland contingent inside the sparsely packed dome.
Among those 40 were his mother Harriett, his grandmother Ella, his brother Jerome and sister Alaysia, who will play basketball at Howard University next season.
Mitchell finished 1 for 3 from the field in 17 minutes with just two rebounds (zero offensive) and four fouls. His only field goal came on an awkward right hook in the first half that Mitchell basically spiked against the backboard, deadening the ball into the basket and drawing a foul. He missed the ensuing free-throw.
• Just one day after Turgeon lauded Nick Faust’s point guard play and insinuated that the sophomore had, for now, won the starting job, Faust tied his career high with six turnovers, including three in the game’s first five minutes. He entered the game with an 8-0 assist-to-turnover ratio over the past two games and appeared to have solidified himself as Maryland’s starting floor general, but dished out just two assists against those six giveaways.
His teammates weren’t much better. Dez Wells again led the team in assists, with four. Seth Allen played 25 minutes, primarily off the ball, and Pe’Shon Howard shot 0 for 4 from the field in just eight minutes.
“Our point guard play the first half was … as bad as it’s been,” Turgeon said, his voice trailing. “Nick was bad, Pe’Shon’s decision making, both times he went in, was terrible, and Seth forced some things. I was just begging them at timeouts, our point guard play has to be better. Just wasn’t good tonight.”
• Injured reserve John Auslander (fractured left tibia) was in uniform last night, although clearly unable to play. While the Terps were stretching, he walked out in warmups to applause from his teammates. Auslander, who suffered the injury in late December, stood beneath the basket and rebounded shots. Several times, he lightly jogged after loose balls.
Crutches hadn’t hampered his ability to stand up and yell from the sidelines during games, so now that he’s off crutches, nothing changed there.