BROOKLYN — Charles Mitchell backed himself against a white wall inside a Barclays Center hallway and looked down at his chest. Again, the Maryland men’s basketball team had opened its season here against a nationally ranked opponent. Again, the Terrapins overcame an early fit of messy ballhandling and a double-digit deficit to finish within one basket of the upset. But this one, a 78-77 loss to No. 18 Connecticut, seemed different to the sophomore forward.
“It hurts more,” Mitchell said. “It’s a soft feeling in my heart because I felt like we were the better team.”
Like last November, when the Terps lost by three points in Brooklyn to Kentucky, they called a late timeout Friday night and schemed for the game-winner. Coach Mark Turgeon wanted junior guard Dez Wells, the team’s unquestioned leader, with the ball in his hands. With the Terps down one point, Wells curled off a double screen and caught the inbounds pass but ran into two other Huskies playing help defense. So he stopped, rose and shot.
“It went in and out,” Wells said. ‘It rolled around the rim. It was a good look. It happens, but you live and you work hard throughout the offseason for that moment. I know I can make that shot.”
But for a furious second-half barrage and help from their opponent, the Terps never would have been in position to get a win. Laboring without a true point guard in the wake of Seth Allen’s recent broken foot, Maryland committed 13 turnovers and struggled to establish offensive sets. Wells handled the playmaking duties, and the junior’s first test opened with two credited turnovers in the first four possessions.
The frantic pace better suited the Huskies, who won 20 games last season despite an NCAA-imposed postseason ban. Against Connecticut’s shifty, smothering backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, the Terps needed crispness. Instead, they brought slop.
“The first half felt like last year,” Turgeon said, referring to the Kentucky game. “I felt like we never got over the hump in this one.”
Behind midway through the second half by 17 points, Maryland was helped in its comeback by several Huskies turnovers and two bricked free throws.
Turgeon dialed up a full-court press. Faust, who finished with a team-high 17 points despite shooting 5 of 18 from the field, made his first field goal after intermission with 3 minutes 19 seconds left, then swished a three-pointer that brought his team within two about a minute later. Soon Napier, a unanimous preseason first-team all-American Athletic Conference selection, had fouled out. The Maryland bench rose to its feet.
“If Dez Wells’s shot goes in, everybody is talking about how good we are,” Turgeon said.
But it didn’t, and so the attention turns to Maryland, which dug itself an early, ultimately insurmountable hole despite five scorers finishing in double digits — Wells, Evan Smotrycz and Jake Layman notched 13 each and Mitchell had 12.
The Huskies sprinted to an 11-5 lead, turning giveaways into fast-break points and forcing Maryland into a 3-2 zone. Before long, they poked holes in that, too. As Ghanaian center Amida Brimah protected the rim on defense, Connecticut closed the half with points on four of five possessions and went up by 12.
With each forward step the Terps took, Connecticut answered. Maryland’s defense finally stepped up midway through the second half, forcing four Huskies turnovers in six possessions to allow Maryland to sneak back within five points. Then Connecticut couldn’t make the front ends of consecutive one-and-ones in the final 30 seconds. Both Boatright and Terrence Samuel missed. For the Terps, the openings were there, right up until the final possession, just like they were against Kentucky.
“There’s really no moral victory within it,” Wells said. “Basketball’s a game of runs and highs and lows. You can’t be too high, can’t be too low. We have to be even-keeled throughout the whole season, and we’ll be a better team than we were last year.”