NEW YORK - The Maryland Terrapins had the experience, the gaudy No. 2 ranking and the anticipation that come with starting anew after going to their first Final Four.
And none of it mattered last night at Madison Square Garden, where the unranked Arizona Wildcats, full of youth and inexperience, refused to blink and gave the Terps a lesson to think about in the season opener for both teams.
Led by junior point guard Jason Gardner, the Wildcats recovered from a brief stumble in the first half, pulled even with Maryland at intermission, then kept the Terps chasing them for much of the second half before easing to a 71-67 victory before 12,615 in the opening round of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Gardner led all scorers with 23 points, and fellow junior Rick Anderson (10 points) clinched the victory by sinking two free throws with three seconds left, sending Maryland into tonight's consolation round against Temple.
Senior guard Juan Dixon led Maryland with 21 points, five assists and five steals, despite playing only 25 minutes because of foul trouble. Senior center Lonny Baxter, who had his hands full against freshmen Isaiah Fox and Channing Frye and a nasty matchup zone defense employed by the Wildcats, scored 14 points and added nine rebounds.
Junior forward Luke Walton had 12 points, and his 12-rebound effort typified Arizona, which scratched and clawed harder around the boards than Maryland.
"We didn't execute well. We didn't hit the boards well. It cost us," Baxter said. "We got outworked by a younger team, and it hurts."
Think back to last year's beginning in the Maui Invitational, when the Terps got whipped on the glass by a highly ranked Illinois team and unranked Dayton, finishing the tournament 1-2.
Arizona beat Maryland last night by grabbing 46 rebounds to the Terps' 40, and seemed to grab every big rebound in sight. And the Wildcats made Maryland pay for some poor shot selection against that zone. The Terps took 27 three-pointers, making only seven. Besides Dixon, they shot 2-for-17 from beyond the arc.
"In the first half, we didn't run our offense the way we like to run it," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "We settled for jump shots first. We weren't tough enough to go inside as consistently as we would have liked to. Down the stretch, I thought we missed some shots we normally make."
The Wildcats sure didn't. Led by freshman guard Salim Stoudamire - he scored nine of his 12 points in the opening seven minutes of the second half - Arizona went on a 14-6 run to take a 53-45 lead with 10:30 left in the game.
Dixon hit back-to-back three-points to pull the Terps within 55-51 with 8:26 left, and that awakened Maryland, which took its first lead of the half at 56-55 on a three-pointer by Blake. Drew Nicholas and Dixon fed Baxter for easy scores to give the Terps a 60-57 lead with 5:43 left, but Arizona answered by tying the game at 61.
Then, Gardner, who got the best of Blake most of the evening, produced a pivotal four-point play to make it 65-61 with 3:17 to go, and the Wildcats never trailed again.
The Wildcats are young and deep. They ran a nine-man rotation at Maryland, which answered with seven players and never got junior forward Ryan Randle off the bench. Nicholas (two points, 1-for-5 shooting) played all three guard positions.
When asked if the Terps might've underestimated the Wildcats, who opened the season unranked for the first time since 1990, Dixon frowned.
"I hope guys weren't thinking like that. I know I wasn't," he said.
"We knew Arizona was going to come out and play some matchup zone. They didn't allow us to get the ball inside to Lonny, Chris [Wilcox] and Tahj [Holden] as much as we wanted. It definitely hurt us. And we have to work harder at the defensive end, point blank. We didn't play hard for 40 minutes."
Maryland's big men played on mute for much of the time. Wilcox, the high-flying sophomore who got the second start of his career, started strong with a pair of dunks to get the Terps going, and his baseline jumper pulled Maryland within 69-67 with 4.6 seconds left. But he also produced only three rebounds in 22 minutes.