STATE COLLEGE, PA. — The lane was open, and Penn State guard Josh Reaves saw no Maryland defender within 2 feet. One dribble and Reaves elevated, finishing with a one-handed slam.
Having seen his team's eight-point lead over the Terps early in the second half shrink to one, Reaves used the rim-shaking dunk to start a 12-3 run for the Nittany Lions.
After the Terps cut their deficit to three, sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr. overcompensated for a pair of Penn State defenders flying at him on a drive with 29 seconds left and shot well over the rim.
The unchallenged dunk by Reaves and the contested miss by Cowan, who led the Terps with 15 points, summed up the difference in the Maryland men’s basketball team's 74-70 loss Wednesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon discusses his team’s loss to Penn State on Wednesday, Feb. 7, in State College, Pa. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)
The dunk by Reaves was one of several easy drives and layups the Nittany Lions made throughout the night, including a few early by sophomore forward Lamar Stevens, who finished with a game-high 25 points on 10-for-12 shooting.
While Maryland coach Mark Turgeon credited Stevens with making “some incredible shots,” he criticized his team’s lack of defense on the two 3-pointers by a 31.6 percent career 3-point shooter who had made just 18 of his previous 63 attempts this season.
“We gave him two wide-open 3s, and we’re not supposed to guard him like that,” Turgeon said. “That kind of gets you going a little bit. He’s made 18 all year [coming in], but we can’t be 6 feet off of him and act like we’re not guarding him. He’s a heck of a player. Those hurt.”
Those defensive gaffes were reminiscent of others that have contributed to Maryland’s recent slide of four defeats in the past five games, especially in the three close road losses at then-No. 23 Michigan, Indiana and No. 3 Purdue.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the Terps went into Penn State among the league’s worst defensive teams in conference games.
“We just can’t put ourselves in that position. We’ve got to be better on the defensive end,” sophomore guard Kevin Huerter said after the game. "Especially on the road you’ve got to be better at defense and we weren’t again tonight.”
Despite hitting 13 of 22 shots (59.1 percent) from the field in the first half and making five of six free throws, the Terps still trailed by six points at the break.
Despite making 25 of 46 overall (54.3) and nine of 17 on 3-pointers, Maryland last led with 4:59 left in the first half.
While Penn State’s offensive performance was solid — the Nittany Lions made 27 of 52 overall (51.9 percent) and nine of 21 on 3-pointers — it was the home team’s poor free-throw shooting in the second half (7-for-14), and not the Terps defense, that allowed Maryland to make a run.
“We couldn’t really get a stop all game,” Huerter said. “They shot really well, but we didn’t think we competed well on the defensive end in the first half. In the second half we were better but we just didn't get very many stops.”
Stevens wasn’t the only Nittany Lion whom Maryland’s soft defense had trouble stopping.
Sophomore guard Tony Carr, who missed 17 of 23 shots in Maryland’s 75-69 win over Penn State on Jan. 2 in College Park, hit five of 12, including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers. Sophomore forward Mike Watkins was 5-for-7 from the field and finished with 11 points.
Conversely, Penn State clamped down on Cowan’s driving (1-for-4 inside the 3-point line, where he was 3-for-3) and Huerter’s 3-point shooting (1-for-4 on 3-pointers, 5-for-12 overall).
Both players had scored nine points by halftime, but Cowan got up just three shots in the second half, making one, while Huerter, who finished with 13 points, was 2-for-6, with both made baskets coming late in the game.
Maryland still needs help at point guard next season after four-star point guard Tyger Campbell committed to UCLA on Tuesday, continuing a streak of recruiting misses for the Terps men’s basketball team.
Cowan acknowledged that with a smaller lineup necessitated by the recent heel injury to senior center Michal Cekovsky — as well as a frontcourt rotation that had graduate transfer center Sean Obi play 10 minutes and redshirt freshman forward Joshua Tomaic play just two — the Terps need more focus defensively.
“When it’s like that, we just can’t take plays off,” Cowan said. “Even if we’re little, we’ve got to box out every time, we’ve got to get in help [defense] every time. We’ve got to contest shots every time. We can’t take plays off, especially with what we’re going through now.”
It’s understandable that Maryland’s guards find themselves lacking defensive intensity at times. Cowan, who didn’t come out for the fifth time in league games this season, ranks first in the Big Ten in minutes played (36.4). Huerter, who played 27 minutes, is fourth (34.0).
That doesn’t excuse the defensive lapses of teammates who are getting regular rest.
“My guys battled. Are you serious, guys? My guys battled,” he said. “My kids battled. We had like four guys out there [who normally would be playing]. My guys battled. Anthony makes the layup, we cleared the side, it’s a one-point game. They’ve got a heck of a team. My guys battled.”