ATLANTA | Maryland thought it turned a corner with a riveting defeat of Miami this week.
Instead, it went in reverse and found itself in a familiar position.
The Terrapins absorbed perhaps their most unsettling loss of the season, a lackluster 63-61 setback on the road against rebuilding Georgia Tech.
“I thought we were growing up,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “I really did. I thought we were growing up. Today showed we haven’t grown up all the way. We weren’t ready to play.”
That much was evident when the Yellow Jackets raced to a 10-2 in the mostly deserted Philips Arena (announced crowd: 6,502) and later erased a nine-point deficit in the second half.
But there were deeper concerns than simply a few runs. The Terps (16-12, 6-8 ACC) missed a dozen layups, and sputtered at both ends in crucial end-game moments.
Turgeon, never one to sugarcoat a situation, repeatedly professed his disappointment after the loss to the Yellow Jackets (10-18, 3-11). No wonder: The Terps could have moved into a three-way tie for sixth in the conference, a half-game in arrears of Miami.
Instead, Maryland occupies eighth place with two imposing games remaining (at North Carolina and at home against Virginia) after suffering their only loss of the season to a team currently sporting a losing record.
“I think we overlooked Georgia Tech coming into this game and it cost us big-time,” said guard Sean Mosley, who scored all but two of his 16 points in the first half. “Our keys were to be a tough team and today they wanted it more than us. That’s why they won today.”
Maryland was not without its chances to even its conference record, even with its lethargic play. Terrell Stoglin’s basket with 17:19 remaining bumped the Terps’ lead to nine, only for Maryland’s patented post-halftime swoon to take hold.
It would be more than another seven minutes before the Terps made a shot from the floor again, and Georgia Tech eventually built a 53-46 lead. Maryland had one response, a 10-2 spurt capped with Stoglin’s drive with 2:03 remaining to provide a tenuous 56-55 edge.
That was about all Maryland could muster despite the Yellow Jackets’ own carelessness. Feeble defense facilitated Mfon Udofia’s 3-point play and, after a Stoglin miss, Brandon Reed drilled a 3-pointer with 26.1 seconds to go to secure a 61-56 edge.
Turgeon didn’t have much personnel flexibility in the final moments —- Mychal Parker’s fifth foul with 6:06 to play meant the only way the Terps could go with a four-guard set was to dip into its pool of walk-ons —- and it showed as his team couldn’t create favorable matchups on offense.
That was hardly as crucial as the fits of indifference Maryland experienced.
“I wouldn’t give any excuse,” forward James Padgett said. “We just have to come and be prepared. Sometimes, we just don’t come out as prepared as we should be.”
And therein lies the problem for this particular bunch, which predictably endured erratic play early, evened out to some extent when it reached its full complement of players and has become less predictable since point guard Pe’Shon Howard suffered a season-ending knee injury Feb. 9.
Maybe Howard might have made enough of a difference for the Terps to survive Saturday, a worthy question for the first time in three losses since the sophomore went down for the second time this season.
Of course, Maryland also rallied past Miami without Howard on Tuesday, collecting perhaps both its most emotional and its most impressive victory a vital man down.
The spectrum of results the Terps have produced of late varies greatly. This one, though, left Turgeon as numb as any loss since returning from a three-game in Puerto Rico in November
“I haven’t felt this way in a while,” Turgeon said. “I know we didn’t play well at Virginia [on Feb. 18], but we competed in the first half. This mental effort, physical effort, toughness was disappointing.”
—- Patrick Stevens