A largely untested Maryland team opened a promising basketball season Friday night hoping to deliver a performance worthy of its big moment — a chance to knock off defending national champion Kentucky in front of a sellout crowd at the stylish, new $1 billion Barclays Center.
Even coach Mark Turgeon had to wonder: Could the Terps — who didn't make the postseason last year — manage to play big enough so early in the season to match their imposing surroundings?
Turgeon's concerns seemed merited as the Terps looked skittish early. Led by a career-best game from sophomore center Alex Len (23 points, 12 rebounds), Maryland eliminated a 15-point deficit before falling, 72-69, in the team's most memorable season opener in years.
After rushing shots during a ragged first half, Maryland went on a 15-0 run in the second half aided by its tenacity on the offensive boards.
“We weren't ready for the big stage — the first half it was pretty obvious,” Turgeon said. “We played wild, we shot quick, didn't run back on defense.”
But Maryland was relentless on the boards in the second half. The Terps had 28 offensive rebounds overall — more than Kentucky coach John Calipari said he had ever seen in a game. Maryland freshman Charles Mitchell had six offensive rebounds, and Len had seven.
“We're going to win and we're going to win this year. We just didn't win tonight,” Turgeon said.
Calipari said of Kentucky allowing so many rebounds: “You [can] see we're freshmen.”
Maryland had cut the deficit to 70-69 when Len followed a free-throw miss with a lay-in with 8.9 seconds left.
After a pair of Kentucky free throws by Jarrod Polson, the Terps took the ball trailing by three with 7.7 seconds left. But Pe'Shon Howard missed a desperation shot and time expired.
“That's not what I wanted, obviously,” Turgeon said. “He was not supposed to shoot over a 7-footer. There was a guy standing right in front of me open for a 3.”
The Terps hung in despite missing all 11 of its 3-point attempts in the first half and shooting 3-for-19 from beyond the arc in the game. The Terps consistently got second chances by getting offensive rebounds — 19 in the first half alone.
A dunk by Terps freshman Shaquille Cleare tied the game at 53. A pair of 3s by freshman Seth Allen gave the Terps a 59-57 lead — their first lead of the second half.
Kentucky regained the lead and went up 67-63 on a steal and lay-in by Polson with about 3 12 minutes left.
It was a game that felt important for an opener. Perhaps that's because it was played against a top team at a neutral site, lending it a postseason aura.
It was also a game notable for its talent — a large contingent of NBA scouts were on hand — but also for a scarcity of veteran leadership.
No. 3 Kentucky did not return a single player who started a game during last year's championship season.
But the Wildcats posed a big test for the Terps inside with size and length. With 6-foot-10 forward Nerlens Noel, 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-10 forward Kyle Wiltjer (19 points), the Wildcats presented one of the most challenging frontcourts Maryland will see this year.
Unhappy with his team's rebounding last season, Turgeon challenged his team to collect six or seven more rebounds per game this season than the opponents. Maryland outrebounded Kentucky by 54-38.
Maryland showed early jitters. Len badly missed a bank shot and Nick Faust shot an air ball and missed his first six field-goal attempts. Len scored six points as the Terps took a 9-7 lead. But the Terps missed nine of their first 11 shots and a 7-0 Kentucky run put the Wildcats up 26-14.