TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon said he talked to his players at halftime of their National Invitation Tournament quarterfinal against Alabama about Frazier-Ali, Michael Jackson and other great performances at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Now, Maryland will get a chance to end its season with one of its own.
The No. 2-seeded Terps weathered a late surge from the No. 1-seeded Crimson Tide on Tuesday night, winning 58-57 in Coleman Coliseum and earning a trip to Madison Square Garden for next week's NIT semifinals.
“I don't like just holding on, but this time of year, it's just a great win,” said second-year coach Mark Turgeon, whose Terps have 25 wins for the first time since the 2006-07 season. “It's hard to win in college basketball, and this time of year it's really hard. And for us to do that, it took a lot of guts.”
Maryland (25-12) will face the winner of tonight's Virginia-Iowa game on Tuesday for the right to play in the April 4 championship. The Terps last reached the NIT semifinals in 2005, losing to South Carolina.
After inbounding with 3.1 seconds left, Alabama sophomore Trevor Lacey's jumper bounced off the back of the rim, hit the front of the rim and fell into the outstretched arms of Dez Wells, sending Maryland on and ending the Crimson Tide's season at 23-13.
“We're excited — no school for the week,” Terps sophomore center Alex Len said with a smile. “It's a great win for our program, and we're excited to play in Madison Square Garden — the best arena in the world.”
The 7-foo1-1 Len dominated his seven-foot counterpart, Moussa Gueye, for much of the night, leading Maryland with 15 points. Len gave the Crimson Tide fits underneath the basket all night, grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking five shots, none bigger than the one he blocked on Alabama's final possession to set up the frenzied inbounds play.
The Terps shot 23-of-46 from the field, including 7-for-15 from beyond the arc, despite playing without sparkplug freshman guard Seth Allen. Allen broke his hand during Sunday's practice and won't play for the remainder of the tournament.
Wells and freshman Jake Layman each scored 13 points, while freshman Charles Mitchell, who started for the first time since Jan. 22, scored six and grabbed five rebounds.
“To do this without Seth, Seth's been pretty important to us,” Turgeon said. “We had a lot of guys step up and play well for us.”
Maryland led by 10 with 16:16 left in the second half, but Alabama slowly chipped away and closed to within one with just 46 seconds to go. Len missed two free throws, giving Alabama a chance to pull out a dramatic victory.
But Len blocked sophomore Rodney Cooper's layup attempt with 3.1 seconds left, setting up a heart-stopping finish for the announced 9,479, who made themselves heard from the start.
Lacey grabbed the inbounds pass in the corner, dribbled to the left of the free throw line and took a shot that was just too long.
“We're excited to go back to New York, it's going to be a great experience,” said Mitchell, whose Terps opened the season with a 72-69 loss to Kentucky in Brooklyn. “But we're going there to win. We're not excited about a road trip. We're trying to go there and win it all.”
The NCAA tournament is the ultimate goal for every team in college basketball, but Maryland feels it has built a foundation for next season during its NIT run. The Terps found themselves in a close game on the road, an area in which they struggled for much of the season, and they found a way to win.
“Really proud of my guys,” Turgeon said. “We've been talking about trying to get a great road win, and to get it in the postseason against a team that I thought should have been in the NCAA tournament is just a great win.”
Now, Maryland will have at least one more game to build on that foundation.
“We've been through a lot this year, so for us to get this road win means a lot for us,” Wells said. “But we're going to enjoy this game tonight and get ready for our next opponent once they play.
“It's not the NCAAs, but the NIT doesn't sound too bad to me.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun