COLLEGE PARK — There were moments during Saturday's game against Pittsburgh when Maryland seemed on the same level as the No. 20 Panthers.
The Terps played with a little more of an edge than they had for much of the season, challenging one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's physically toughest teams by going to the basket and finishing at the rim.
But the moments proved fleeting, as Maryland's defense couldn't stop the Panthers more than just a couple of possessions at a time and regressed with their own sloppy turnovers and ill-conceived shots.
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In the end, it left the Terps looking at an 83-79 defeat at Comcast Center. It was the second straight and fourth in the last five games for Maryland (11-9, 3-4) after a 2-0 start in the ACC.
The season's largest crowd, announced at 17,202 and included longtime coach Lefty Driesell, was left frustrated with the officials, who sent the Panthers to the free throw line a season-high 47 times.
Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-1) made 32, including 12 of 14 by senior guard Lamar Patterson, who finished with 28 points to go along with seven assists, seven rebounds and four steals in just 30 minutes.
It left third-year Maryland coach Mark Turgeon with much respect for the Panthers, and mixed feelings for his own team that teetered between respectability and regression.
“I've been doing this a long time, about 26 years, and I'm telling you that's one of the best teams I've ever coached against,” said Turgeon. “How they're ranked 20th at 18-2 is an absolute joke, they're a top five team in the country.
“To come into this building and really kind of control the game, up eight or 10 most of the second half, it shows you how good they are. They're terrific on defense, they got a way about them … they all play way beyond their years.”
The flip side is that Maryland often shows its basketball immaturity at the wrong time: fouling late in the shot clock, not rotating on defensive ball screens, shooting too quick when the game is still within grasp and not protecting the back end of a fullcourt press.
After an uncharacteristically fast start, jumping out to an early 9-2 lead and still leading late in the first half despite some questionable fouls called among the 14 that were whistled before halftime, the Terps could never get close enough in the second half to shake the Panthers.
“We just make so many breakdowns defensively, we're better in practice defensively than we were a month ago in understanding being in the right spot,” Turgeon said. “We never quit, we kept playing, trying to execute. Had a lot of guys play well.”
Junior guard Dez Wells led the Terps with 19 points and sophomore forward Jake Layman came out of a recent shooting slump to hit seven of 12 shots to finish with 18 points, but the Terps missed 13 of 17 3-point shots, including all four by sophomore point guard Seth Allen.
“We didn't do a good job of talking, communication is a big thing in basketball and we didn't do a good job of that in spurts, in some spurts we did a really good of it,” Wells said. “We still can be more consistent with that. It would have helped a lot.”
Asked about the way Patterson attacked the basket, Wells said: “I didn't think our ball screen defense was as good as it should have been. We have to do a better job of knowing situations like shot clock and what's going to happen, those are things you can't teach.”
When Maryland was beaten by 20 points earlier this month at Pittsburgh, the Panthers did much of their damage from behind the 3-point line. Pittsburgh made just one 3-point shot, but Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said the gameplan was to get the ball inside.
“Today wasn't going to be a 3-point shooting game, I didn't want to get into that, I wanted to get into the lane and getting fouled,” Dixon said. “We attacked the basket. I thought we did that well. That was what we wanted to do.”
As a result, the Terps fell into foul trouble in the first half, with both junior forward Evan Smotrycz and sophomore forward Charles Mitchell picking up three before halftime. Mitchell fouled out with over seven minutes left.
Trailing by five points at halftime (42-37) and by as many as 12 points (67-55) in the second half, Maryland made little runs to give its fans a glimmer of hope. The last one came after Wells made a layup with 1:31 to play to cut the defict to six, 79-73.
Maryland forced a turnover on Pitt center Talib Zanna, but Allen missed the second of two free throws. When Pitt freshman Josh Newkirk missed a pair of free throws, Zanna gobbled up the rebound, was fouled and made one of two free throws again.
“I'm not going to be negative,” said Turgeon, whose Terps host Miami on Wednesday. “I'm just going to say, ‘We just didn't do our jobs.' Guys weren't in the right spots. It's frustrating.”