The skepticism of Las Vegas bookies descended Tuesday night on the Bryce Jordan Center, where the nation’s No. 4 men’s basketball team came in unbeaten and upbeat after a last-second win as a slight underdog to a fellow Big Ten team coming off a 32-point road defeat.
In reality, the bettors showed more faith in Maryland than the Terps showed in themselves for long stretches in a 76-69 loss to Penn State that both ended an unbeaten season for Mark Turgeon’s team and, in the aftermath of a one-point win at home Saturday over Illinois, raised questions about how overrated it was in the first place.
“We have a long ways to go as a team. Sometimes when you keep winning, you don’t realize it," Turgeon said. “Coaches do. Hopefully tonight with this loss, our guys will realize we have a long ways to go to get where we need to be. No. 1 is sharing the basketball a lot better than we’re sharing it."
Said senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr.: “This whole game is something that we can learn from.”
The defeat — the fourth straight time Maryland (10-1, 1-1 Big Ten) has lost on the road at Penn State (8-2, 1-1) — prevented the Terps from matching the 11-0 records by the 1975-76 and 1996-97 teams as the best in school history to start a season.
As Maryland did in Saturday’s 59-58 win over Illinois, the Terps played from behind nearly the entire game. With a slew of sloppy turnover at the start, the Terps saw an early 10-9 lead quickly dissolve into a 21-10 deficit. That included a stretch of six straight turnovers and seven in nine possessions against a team that came in leading the Big Ten by forcing 16 turnovers a game.
Playing their first true road game of the season, the Terps committed 14 turnovers by halftime and wound up with a season-high 20.
Asked what happened early on, Turgeon said: “We wanted to lead the country in dribbling tonight. We had the most dribbles. We just kept dribbling and dribbling and dribbling. We tried to beat three or four guys instead of getting in the paint and pitching it [out]. ... Guys over-dribbling and now make the easy play. We’re struggling a little bit. We can’t make layups and hit open shots."
Penn State blocked 10 shots, including four by 6-foot-9, 257-pound fifth-year senior Mike Watkins, who also had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Senior forward Lamar Stevens finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and the Nittany Lions had five players score in double figures.
“Mike Watkins is a big presence down there. He’s a big guy, he carves up a lot space,” said sophomore guard Eric Ayala, who scored 15 points but had three of his shots blocked. “I think we did a bad job of not shot-faking and kicking out. Just overshooting. Credit to Mike Watkins, he was big-time tonight.”
As a team, Maryland shot 19-for-57 from the field (33.3%) and 8-for-23 on 3-pointers (34.8%). Cowan led the Terps with 16 points — the last two from the free throw line with 5.9 seconds left as Penn State fans, poised to swarm the court after the final buzzer, chanted “overrated” — but missed 12 of 17 shots from the field, including six of nine 3-point attempts, and three of six free throws.
“I thought Penn State was terrific. From the first play they ran a lob on us, we saw it coming and we couldn’t do anything about it," Turgeon said. “Defensively, I thought they were were great for 40 minutes. They’re quick, they’re fast, they fly around. They run you off the 3-point line. They were really good. Now you can’t go on the road and shoot [33%] and have 20 turnovers and win a game. They deserved to win."
Pleased with the way his team competed after ending the first half trailing by 10 — the Terps failed to control a defensive rebound in the closing seconds of the half, and Penn State sophomore guard Myreon Jones (14 points, six assists) hit a corner 3 right before the buzzer that Turgeon called “a killer” — Maryland threatened on several occasions to gain control of the game but never did.
The last time came after Cowan, who had missed a critical pair of free throws as the Terps were mounting a second-half comeback, made one of two from the line to cut the deficit to three, 58-55, with 5:52 remaining. But redshirt sophomore guard Izaiah Brockington (14 points) buried a 3 from the wing, and after Cowan missed a difficult shot in the lane, Jones scored on a drive.
The Terps never threatened again.
“I was really proud of effort, to be honest. We really competed that second half,” Turgeon said. “We tried as hard as we could try. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
While not using a rugged stretch of six games in the past 13 days as an excuse — "the better team won,” he said — Turgeon hopes to use the time until his team’s next game Dec. 19 against No. 22 Seton Hall in Newark, New Jersey, to get more out of an offense that produced just nine assists Tuesday.
“We really haven’t had a lot of practice time," he said. “But we have about five plays that we can run. We weren’t running 'em tonight because we had to win so many games down in Orlando. We haven’t had time to practice and do some things. Now we’ve got finals and we’ve got time and hopefully we can get a lot better offensively, quit dribbling so much. Share the ball better and be a better offensive team.”
Said Ayala: “Now that we got a loss, we can learn from it. Watch a lot of film and get ready for the next game. ... Just staying positive. It’s a lot to learn from that game. We had a lot of mistakes, a lot of little stuff that can be corrected. I think we’re looking forward to practice. We’ve got a nice stretch where we can just practice and get better.”
Asked what his message was to the team after the game, Turgeon said: “Well, I don’t know, we’ll see. Sometimes when you’re 18-19 years old and you’re 10-0 and you’re ranked really high and all that kind of stuff ... so hopefully this will refocus us.”
The reaction from the Penn State fans that rushed the court and the players who stood on courtside tables and sang the school’s fight song left its own indelible mark on Ayala. While it has happened to Maryland before — most recently in 2015-16, when the Terps, ranked No. 6 and playing without suspended freshman center Diamond Stone, fell to Minnesota, which lost its first 13 Big Ten games — it was a new experience for these players.
“Yeah, that was my first time,” Ayala said. “It’s not something I want to feel again. I’m looking forward to stopping that today.”