COLLEGE PARK — Who would have imagined that this — an early-season game against an America East foe during a sleepy holiday-season week — could turn into an event?
But the fans at Maryland’s 83-72 victory over Albany clearly felt they were seeing something special as 7-footer Alex Len made his regular-season debut by hitting his first five shots — four of them dunks — en route to a 14-point, eight-rebound performance.
Even with Len on the floor, Maryland (8-3) lost an early 13-point lead and had to hold on at the end.
But, at worst, the game marked the fans’ introduction to an intriguing — if raw — big man. Len, who has been practicing with the team and was a surprise starter Wednesday night, missed the first 10 games of the season as a penalty for having previously signed with a club overseas.
At best, the player’s arrival — along with last week’s return of point guard Pe’Shon Howard — could change the tenor of Maryland’s season, providing the Terps and their fans with a sense of possibility. Howard (eight assists) is a floor leader, and Len has the ability to provide the Terps with an explosive low-post presence.
“The difference is – and I haven’t said it much this year – we had more depth than their team,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who began the season with just seven team members originally recruited as scholarship players. Now he has nine.
Said Albany coach Will Brown: "We just picked the wrong time to play them, I guess."
Despite the win, Turgeon said Maryland did not run its offense smoothly, and that the difference was defense. Albany shot 38.9 percent, and Len had three blocked shots.
The coach also credited reserve forward James Padgett with key contributions. Five of Padgett’s seven rebounds were on the offensive end, and he had 13 points.
Terrell Stoglin led Maryland with 22 points.
“Everybody was more confident today because we had everybody playing,” said Stoglin, whose six 3-pointers were a career high.
The sophomore said he had more room on the perimeter because Albany – which was outrebounded by the Terps 49-28 – had to concentrate on Maryland’s big men.
“The pressure was pretty much taken off me,” Stoglin said.
The Terps have been making a habit of playing close games against opponents from smaller conferences. And this was no different — even with Len on the floor. The Terps had not previously won a game by double digits all season.
Using the 3-point shot effectively, the Great Danes took a 52-50 lead on a field goal by junior guard Gerardo Suero (22 points), who entered averaging 21.5 points per game.
The Terps answered with an 13-0 run to take a 63-52 lead. The run was highlighted by two baskets by freshman Nick Faust, who did not start for the first time this season but entered the game quickly.
Albany cut the deficit to 74-71 on a Luke Devlin field goal. But James Padgett converted a free throw and Sean Mosley hit a transition layup and free throw to push the margin back to 78-71. Len had a critical blocked shot near the end.
Some fans in the student section chanted “We love Alex” as he momentarily went to the bench with the Terps ahead by nine points in the final moments.
“I was really happy for [Len] because he was nervous in the locker room,” Stoglin said.
Turgeon had previously said he didn’t expect to start Len, and that he didn’t want the player to get caught up in media hype.
“I changed our starting lineup 17,000 times," Turgeon said after the game. "I just think those were our best players who are our starters.”
Len was not made available to the media after the game. Turgeon has said he doesn’t want the player to feel too much pressure too soon.
But before the game began, fans were treated to a video message of Len, who is from Antratsit, Ukraine, telling them: “I’m ready to play!”
His first career basket came when he rammed home an alley-oop from Mosley to put Maryland up 4-0. He converted a step-back jumper for his second field goal.
There were times when Len looked raw. He was called for goaltending on both the offensive and defensive ends. Turgeon said Len is still transitioning away from international rules, under which players can touch a ball in the cylinder once it has hit the rim.
But Len's presence — and particularly his dunks — seemed to fire up his teammates. After his fourth straight converted basket, he chest-bumped 6-10 teammate Berend Weijs. Len and Weijs played together at times, giving Maryland an imposing front court against the smaller Great Danes.