Alex Len emerged from the fray battered and sweating, the white sleeve on his Maryland Pride jersey dirty after students tugged on the fabric near midcourt and clung to his arms like tree limbs. He and Shaquille Cleare, two frontcourt magicians who made Duke forward Mason Plumlee disappear Saturday evening, pushed through the crowd together, walking through the tunnel and savoring a moment still in its infancy.
For Len, the trick now becomes replicating his dominance of the Blue Devils, when Maryland’s sophomore center dropped 19 points and nine rebounds on the nation’s No. 2 team and its player of the year candidate. Len was efficient from the field (6 for 8) and from the free-throw line (7 for 8). He blocked three shots and stood his ground in the low post. In short, Len lived up to the hype.
Ever since Coach Mark Turgeon touted Len’s massive offseason strides and the sophomore himself backed up those expectations with a breakout double-double against Kentucky, NBA scouts have arrived to Comcast Center in droves, hoping to jot down a few notes on the future lottery pick. Sometimes, Len impressed. Other times, he disappointed.
Even through the inconsistent performances, like moving from a dominating double-double against Boston College to a four-point showing at Florida State two games later, Len still remains easy to motivate. And so it came to pass that Turgeon, seeking to jumpstart his team’s biggest offensive weapon, called Alex Len the younger brother of Mason Plumlee.
Plumlee posterized Len at Duke in late January, but Len scored the knockout blow in the rematch. Plumlee finished with just four points and three rebounds in 33 minutes, while Len strung together arguably the most impressive showing of his career in 29 minutes.
“He was great on ball-screen defense, he was great on protecting the rim, he was great on post defense,” Turgeon said. “He picked up fouls three and four real quick. He was dominating the game. I didn’t like either of the calls, to be quite honest with you. But he fouled. And I should have taken him out, the one before his fourth foul. No, he was great. I’ve been on Alex pretty hard. I’m going to stay on him. For us to have a chance to make a run down the stretch here, we need Alex to play at that level.”
If Seth Allen was the hero, sinking two free throws with two seconds left to clinch the win, Len was the linchpin, asserting himself for post-entry passes and backing down Plumlee with ease. Duke didn’t double Len like Virginia, but still threw multiple looks at him.
“We said Plumlee doesn’t want to guard you,” Allen said. “He averages two fouls per game. Just go at him. Every play. That’s what he did. He didn’t do any fadeaways. Just took it right to his chin.”
Said James Padgett: “Alex was motivated. He paid attention to what he did wrong last game. He stepped it up, executed and did what he had to do to get this win.”
Those 19 points were the most Len had scored since ACC play began, reaching 16 against both Virginia Tech and Boston College. But he entered Saturday averaging just 8.6 points over the past five games, with no more than seven field-goal attempts in that span.
Len only hoisted eight shots against the Blue Devils, but made them count. He returned the favor against Plumlee with a massive dunk that made it 5-0 early in the game. On Maryland’s next possession, he tipped in a Shaquille Cleare miss. His two turnovers – a bad pass and a foolish over-dribble – came within a short first-half span, sandwiching a nifty baby hook over Plumlee. After that, Len didn’t make another mistake.
“It’s all about team,” Len said. “I don’t really care how many points I score, how many rebounds I had. It’s a big win for us, for our team and for our program. I know our fans waited for this win for years.”
Len wrote something similar on his Instagram account, paired with an overhead shot of him wading through the sea of supporters, a lone white jersey surrounded by clawing fans. Len endeared himself once again Saturday night. His follow-up act against Boston College can make it stick.
“He’s always been skilled,” Turgeon said during Monday’s ACC coaches teleconference. “He’s just gotten stronger and more confident. He’s more comfortable. Of course, he was off the charts the other night. That’s the best he’s played in a long time.”