By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Given the composition and nature of this season's Maryland men's basketball team, a cold reality was bound to settle in at College Park at some point: Opposing teams know exactly what they're going to get when they face the Terrapins, a team equipped with several tells but not a single bluff.
Even in a postgame locker room dampened by the team's first defeat since the final day of November, Maryland's players could not mask the emotions that accompanied last night's 66-65 loss to Morgan State at Comcast Center. Several Terrapins spoke of the opportunity to start anew with today's practice and Saturday's conference opener against Georgia Tech.
But most of them did so in sullen, subdued voices and with their eyes glaring at the red carpet in front of them.
None of them saw this coming, not after making it through December without one of those nonconference defeats that had doomed previous seasons. Maryland had played relentless pressure defense, which resulted in a transition attack as fluid as it was precise. As a result, the Terrapins planned to enter the ACC season with momentum at their backs.
"The one thing about pressure defense, you really get exposed when you're not working hard," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "The press is one thing, but after we scored a couple times, they just threw it to half court and went down and scored against us, whether we were pressing or not pressing. We weren't getting back at all."
What Maryland failed to acknowledge was that while their preferred frenetic pace may have helped them win seven straight games, it also established a pattern that has become predictable. Morgan State adjusted accordingly to the Terrapins' tendencies and capitalized on their sluggish demeanor.
In the locker room prior to tip-off, "I felt like the life was pretty good," senior forward Dave Neal said. "I just don't know why when the ball went up we started playing slow. We tried to pick it up and it just didn't work for us."
When the Terrapins (11-3) opened the game in their full-court press, the Bears faltered at first, giving up a handful of turnovers that led to an early Maryland lead. But then Morgan State (6-8) did something no Maryland opponent has been able to do in more than a month -- routinely break the press and compile quick baskets.
On defense, the Bears quickly acknowledged that, given a little patience, Maryland's half-court offense would unravel on its own. The Terrapins shot 1 of 14 from three-point range and had 21 turnovers.
"That's a lot of times you're not getting a shot off," Williams said of his team's high turnover total. "We paid a price for that."
Still, Maryland built a 14-point lead about midway through the second half after going on a 16-2 run. Sizable second-half spurts had been another of the Terrapins' calling cards in recent games, though last night's surge did not have the lasting effect of its predecessors. Williams said that even during that stretch he did not feel comfortable because of his team's overall deportment.
Maryland has needed -- and been able to call on -- such second-half runs on several occasions recently against inferior opponents. Williams has said he does not want his team to rely on its pressing defense and transition attack for offensive production, but with each passing contest, it becomes clearer the Terrapins might not have any other choice. The grace with which the team typically operates while playing at such a frenetic pace all but disappears when Maryland is asked to run its half-court sets.
"We didn't run our offense properly once we got the lead there in the second half," Williams said. "We settled for jump shots, and you know, when you shoot 1 for 14 from the three-point line, that's a pretty good indication of maybe you should be doing something else with the basketball."
The Bears remained in contention by rising to and maintaining the pace Maryland set, and their efforts were buoyed by the long-range shooting performance of junior guard Reggie Holmes, who shot 5 of 11 from beyond the arc and finished with 25 points.
Morgan State also took advantage of another well-known Maryland characteristic -- the lack of a dominant post player. Kevin Thompson, a 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman, scored 10 points and added 13 rebounds.
With 3.7 seconds remaining and his team trailing by one, junior guard Greivis Vasquez, the Terrapins' go-to player, missed a floater in the lane. The ball bounced off the front of the rim and into the arms of a Morgan State player. Vasquez would get one more half-court heave, but it was errant as well.
Maryland shot 35.6 percent, and while Morgan State didn't shoot much better (39.1 percent), the Bears hit enough shots down the stretch to pull off an upset significant for both programs.
"They came out here fired up; we didn't," said junior forward Landon Milbourne, who finished with 15 points. "They hit some open threes. They got to the basket, they got some rebounds and the game went their way. That's what happens if you come out and play hard: You usually get the win. I think they played harder than us tonight."