EVANSTON, Ill. — Alex Len looked to the ceiling of Welsh-Ryan Arena and bellowed in the midst of a dominant stretch early in the second half Tuesday night.
It was Len at his finest, nudging Maryland into a game-clinching spurt. It was the Terrapins at their best, working from the inside out to muscle their way past Northwestern.
“I was pretty hyped,” Len said.
This is the optimal scenario for Maryland, its path to long-term success. Find the big man, funnel it to the big man, and good things will happen.
It certainly was the case in a 77-57 victory, Maryland’s fourth straight road triumph in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge — and perhaps its last as a member of the ACC. The school announced last week it would join the Big Ten in 2014-15.
Len, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds against Northwestern, surely will be on an NBA roster whenever the Terps (5-1) make the full-time plunge into the Land of Leaders and Legends. The overtones of conference affiliation hardly mattered on a chilly night in the Chicago suburbs as Maryland showed both its best and worst in a two-hour stretch.
The Terps’ early foibles barely impacted the final result, so thorough was drubbing administered after the break when Maryland finally figured out its best path to victory.
“We wanted to play through Alex and he came through for us, him and James,” guard Dez Wells (23 points) said. “We knew we had a better inside game than Northwestern did. They’re a great team, but I feel like we have the best frontcourt in the country.”
Time will tell on that claim, but there is little doubt Len provides a piece so few teams can match. At 7-foot-1, he can lasso rebounds, hit mid-range jumpers, serve as a major obstacle on defense and create second-chance opportunities with ease.
It’s a wonder how he became something of an afterthought early on, as Maryland offered up lousy shots and turnovers only for Northwestern (6-1) to counter with 3-point tries coupled with marginal attempts to grab a rebound.
Len’s early burst in the second half was followed by a couple baskets from James Padgett. Maryland’s 13-1 run forced Northwestern coach Bill Carmody to burn a pair of timeouts and extended a modest lead to 47-34.
“That was the game plan from the start,” guard Logan Aronhalt said. “We just didn’t execute it in the first half.”
Eventually, Northwestern tried to negate Maryland’s interior game, switching to a 1-3-1 zone in the hopes of prodding the Terps back into their jumper-happy ways. Aronhalt would have none of it, connecting on back-to-back 3-pointers to chase the Wildcats back to a more typical defense.
The catalyst for it all, though, was Len. Maryland, blessed with speed and size advantages, finally exploited them after a sloppy 11-turnover first half that prompted coach Mark Turgeon to tweak his break.
The option of pushing it into the paint with Len didn’t hurt, either.
“When you have a guy like Alex, it’s intimidating to the other team. …,” Turgeon said. “Alex is a smart player, really smart. You make adjustments on the fly and he’s really good at it. He was real aggressive and I thought our guards did a good job of finding him and he just does what he does.”
What he does, of course, is present concerns that are difficult to fully prepare for even if he is an increasingly known quantity.
At times, the only way to negate Len is for the Terps to ignore him. They did in the first half Tuesday. Urged to play smarter, Maryland found its biggest big and cruised from there.
“Coach was like ‘Slow down, play with poise,’ ” Len said. “We started executing better and playing inside out. It was great.”
For a few minutes, so was Len. For nearly the entire second half, so was Maryland. It might not prove a harbinger of later success, but it at least provides an obvious roadmap to secure it.