NEW YORK — No matter what, Maryland’s season-opening trek to the Barclays Center was going to gauge how wide a chasm a proud program coming off a relative low tide still needed to traverse.
Here were the Terrapins, two years removed from their last NCAA tournament appearance and still figuring out how to fit together so many new pieces, facing defending national champion Kentucky and its rebuilt roster.
The No. 3 Wildcats survived 72-69, but it was nearly beside the point. Maryland erased a 15-point deficit in the second half, traded the lead with Kentucky and very much looked like they belonged in an important game for the first time under coach Mark Turgeon.
It wasn’t perfect. It was promising, regardless of a skittish first half and crucial turnovers in the closing minutes.
“We’re a great program, too, but we’re still figuring out how to do those things,” Turgeon said. “We weren’t ready for the big stage. The first half, it was pretty obvious. That’s why we play these games because we want to get to where we’re there.”
Maryland (0-1) might not be there yet. But if a single game on a riveting Brooklyn evening is any indication, it might be quite soon.
Alex Len demonstrated just how much he advanced in the off-season, a pulsating 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks to his name while statistically getting the better of Kentucky’s touted freshman post players.
Seth Allen played 25 turnover-free minutes and canned a pair of crucial 3-pointers. Maryland showed a knack for chasing down its many misses from the perimeter, managing more offensive rebounds (28) than Kentucky had defensive rebounds (25).
And facing a 53-38 deficit early in the second half, the Terps rattled off 15 straight points to even things up, perhaps hinting at the dawn of something remarkable still to come.
“It just showed we can be a good team, we didn’t come out as hard as tough as we should have at the beginning, but as time went on we settled down and got rid of the jitters and did a better job,” forward James Padgett said.
It was arguably a glimpse at Maryland at its best and worst. When things go well, the Terps will run their offense through Len and commit to defense. When they go poorly, lousy shots will be hoisted early in the shot clock and defense will be an afterthought.
Yet even with their share of foibles, Maryland had a chance to force overtime in the closing minutes. That they didn’t — and, perhaps more accurately, how they didn’t — demonstrated there is still plenty to improve upon.
Coming out of a timeout with 7.7 seconds left, junior guard Pe’Shon Howard came off a screen from freshman Jake Layman, only to try to hoist a shot over Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel rather than flip it back to Layman. The attempt came after the buzzer. Even if it was launched in time, it had little chance of falling.
“That’s not what I wanted, obviously,” Turgeon said. “I’m still learning how to coach my team like John is, but you’re not supposed to shoot over a 7-footer. There was a guy standing right in front of me who was wide open for a 3. He knows that.”
Howard, though, stifled Kentucky guard Julius Mays when no one else could. Sophomore Dez Wells didn’t enjoy an efficient debut but still provided help in several areas. Layman was quiet for much of the night yet connected on a 3-pointer in the comeback.
And on and on it went. Maryland, as a team and as individuals, has much to work on. It showed, however, it has even more to work with in the months to come.
“They’re the defending national champions, so they’re going to get everybody’s best every night they come out,” said Wells, who played two days after receiving immediate eligibility from the NCAA. “They got our best and we let it slip through our fingers. We could have won that game.”
The wins will come for these Terps. The six players who logged their first time for Maryland won’t face opening night nerves again. The shaky perimeter shooting (3-for-19) will sure improve to some degree. Guard Nick Faust who struggled first with shooting and later with apparent cramping will have better days.
So will Maryland. It is too soon to declare the Terps are ticketed for a deep run in March or a serious shot at a conference title. One game secures little, but it does reveal a possible trajectory.
Maryland hit its low tide a year ago, an ultimately irrelevant string of games from beginning to end in a 17-15 season. Gone are so many of the figures of that campaign, with upgrades littered throughout the roster in their stead.
There’s still a ways to go, still a chasm to traverse. It just doesn’t look nearly as wide after a frenzied Friday night in Brooklyn that didn’t produce a victory but did validate optimism this might just be an intriguing ride in the months to come.
“We’re going to win, and we’re going to win this year,” Turgeon said. “We just didn’t win tonight. I can promise you that. We learned a lot tonight, and Kentucky had national championship pride, and they wanted it a little more than we did. We’re going to learn from it. I have a lot of competitors, and we’re going to win.”
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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