As obvious as it seems to state that the beginning and end of college basketball games often determine their outcome, the first half and final seconds of Maryland's 72-69 loss to No. 3 Kentucky on Friday night certainly played a huge part in the Terps leaving Brooklyn's Barclays Center disappointed rather than the talk of their sport.
The big stage of a nationally televised opener against the defending national champions was something Maryland couldn't handle for large chunks of the first 20 minutes, and it was something junior guard Pe'Shon Howard tried to take over in the last 7.7 seconds when he opted to play the role of star rather than something he was on the floor to do — be the set-up man for a game-tying 3-point shot.
"That's not what I wanted, obviously," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said of Howard's shot after the Terps had lost their first season opener in 11 years. "I'm still learning how to coach my team like John [Calipari] is, but you're not supposed to shoot over a 7-footer. There was a guy standing right in front of me who was wide open for a 3. [Howard] knows that."
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But the Terps made a statement throughout the night with their voracious rebounding (28 on the offensive boards) and a gritty comeback (from a 15-point deficit) that reflected the personality of their coach. Turgeon vowed after Howard's ill-advised heave over 6-10 Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel missed badly — with a wide-open Logan Aronhalt ready to shoot a 3 on the left wing — that his young team would win big games this season.
Maryland certainly will.
Even amid their ice-cold shooting that resulted in the Terps missing an astounding 50 of 75 shots, including their first 14 tries from 3-point range, they still had a chance to send the game into overtime. Even with transfer Dez Wells, a player Turgeon considers the best on the team, more than a little overanxious after regaining his eligibility from the NCAA on Wednesday, Maryland could have won.
"It just showed we can be a good team," said senior forward James Padgett. "We didn't come out as hard or tough as we should have at the beginning, but as time went on we settled down and got rid of the jitters and did a better job."
A year ago, when Turgeon's scrappy but undermanned bunch lost competitive games at home to both Duke and North Carolina, they built early leads but faltered down the stretch, a lack of bodies, talent and experience conspiring against them. When the Terps lost Friday night, it was not because Turgeon didn't have enough options.
Turgeon almost had too many, particularly on the last possession.
He surrounded Howard, who had missed six of his first seven shots, with shooters. Freshman Seth Allen had hit two huge 3s earlier in the half during an 18-4 Maryland run, including one to give the Terps a 59-56 lead. Aronhalt had missed his only 3 but had his feet and hands set right in front of the Maryland bench. The Terps also had Wells and Faust on the floor. Though neither of the sophomore wings had made a 3-pointer Friday night, each have shown the ability to hit 3s in the past.
Trying to get as much experience into that high-pressure situation, Turgeon might have showed too much faith in Howard. The shot was reminiscent of a few years back when Greivis Vasquez, then a sophomore, launched an ill-advised 3 at the buzzer at Virginia Tech despite having missed his six previous 3s that afternoon.
But the Terps will learn from Friday's experience — the bright lights, the big-name opponent, an important game hanging in the balance. Just as Turgeon is going to figure who he should have out there against Kentucky. Maybe he would have Allen — who again had five assists and no turnovers in 25 minutes — running the show. Maybe he would have another freshman, Jake Layman, who had broken Maryland's 0-for with a rainbow 3 earlier in the half, on the wing opposite Aronhalt.
Unlike a year ago, when you wondered how many more chances Maryland would get to pull off an upset after those against the hated Tar Heels and Blue Devils slipped away at Comcast Center, you know the Terps will have their share this season — and maybe by the end of the season it won't be considered that big a shock.
As ESPN is promoting its college season as "The Journey to the Tourney," it now seems to be the same for the Terps.
"We're a great program, too, but we're still figuring out how to do these things," Turgeon said. "We weren't ready for the big stage. The first half, it was pretty obvious. That's why we play these games because we want to get to where we're there."
The Terps are a little closer today than they were heading to Brooklyn.