COLLEGE PARK — Four seasons ago, against the same highly ranked opponent on the same court in the same event, three Maryland freshmen showed an ability to hit shots and make plays in what was the most hyped game at that point early in their college careers.
While guard Melo Trimble proved to be the only future star among them, their performance against then-No. 7 Virginia in the ACC-Big Challenge proved a catalyst in the Terps’ return to the NCAA tournament later that season after a five-year absence.
There was a similar feeling about Wednesday’s game against the No. 4 Cavaliers at Xfinity Center. Though the end result was the same for No. 24 Maryland— the first loss of the season — the performance by three of its freshmen showed the promise of this year’s team.
In a 76-71 loss, forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) helped get the Terps off to a solid start inside and, after Virginia took a 17-point lead early in the second half, point guard Eric Ayala and wing Aaron Wiggins helped fuel a legitimate, if ill-fated, comeback.
“I think a lot of the freshmen tonight on our team grew up, it was definitely an experience for us,” said Ayala, who finished with 13 points, as did Wiggins, with both hitting some big 3-pointers in the second half. “We’re going to learn from it for sure.”
Ayala was asked if he could sense the difference in experience between the Terps, who have five freshmen in the rotation and two (Ayala and Smith, who finished with six points, five rebounds and three assists) in the starting lineup, and the Cavaliers, who had two, point guard Kehei Clark and forward DeAndre Hunter.
“You could tell, I think they had like two turnovers, that was probably the big difference,” said Ayala, who had three of Maryland’s 14 turnovers. “Their pace was their pace, they didn’t let nothing speed them up.”
A year older than the other freshmen after taking a post-grad season at the IMG Academy in Florida, Ayala admitted that the Terps showed some of their collective inexperience, especially on the defensive end.
“You got to stay disciplined,” Ayala said. “There were some plays we let go, just not staying locked in mentally the whole play. Discipline is definitely a key. We’re going to be able to watch film, coach is going to be able to pick out some certain things we need to work on. We’re going to see it. We’re going to get through it.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon could sense that some of his freshmen were nervous, given the setting of playing before a packed house for the first time this season against a team as experienced, talented and cohesive as the Cavaliers.
“We’re going to get better, we already have,” Turgeon said. “We got better during the game tonight. We got used to the crowd. That was our first sellout. There were some guys that were nervous. They were making mistakes, things we worked on in shootaround today.
“We’ll get better. Let’s be real. We’re playing five young guys out of our top eight and we’re going to have some growing pains. I told the team, I’ve loved coaching them since Day 1 in June when we started. They give me everything they have.”
Maryland (6-1) showed that during the second half Wednesday.
The Terps trailed by nine at halftime and watched the Cavaliers start the second half on a 9-1 run, which was almost exactly the way the game went four years ago when Maryland fell behind by eight at half and trailed by as many as 18 before losing 76-65.
But unlike the previous meeting with Virginia, Maryland clawed back to within four points three times, first at 61-57 with 4:05 remaining, then at 72-68 with 32 seconds and again at 71-67 with three seconds left.
“I think we got heart,” said sophomore center Bruno Fernando, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. “We never quit. We tried to play as hard as we could. We tried to change the result of the game and just tried to stay in the game as long as we could.”
Said Ayala: “We hit adversity. We didn’t want to quit, at the end of the day. We wanted to keep fighting. We knew we had a lot left in the tank. We fought back and gave our best effort.”
Maryland now has two days of preparation to get ready for its Big Ten opener Saturday at home against Penn State.
“It’s a learning curve for our freshmen,” Ayala said. “At the end of the day, it’s basketball, we’ve just got to come out and compete. I don’t think that was a factor in them being older than us. Every game we’re probably going to be the youngest team out there. We’ve got to go out there and play to the best of our abilities.”
Ayala was asked if he thought the Terps showed their potential with the way they hung in there in the second half.
“Man, we’re going to be one helluva team, I’ll tell you that, come March,” he said. “We’re young. For us to go out there and play the way we did and fight back, that showed a lot of character in our team and a lot of our freshmen too. I’m proud of myself, my teammates and our coaches for keeping our spirits high and fighting back the way we did.”