“This one hurts,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We played well enough to win. I’m really proud of my group." (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — In a roller-coaster season that has produced some statistical highs and emotional lows, Maryland junior center Michal Cekovsky took an interesting ride in Saturday's 73-72 loss to No. 23 Purdue at Xfinity Center.
In his fourth game back after missing more than a month with a foot injury, Cekovsky's 13 minutes against the Boilermakers were two fewer than he played in the previous three games combined. His point production was double what he had scored.
Cekovsky had some of the most productive minutes of his college career, which has included flashes of promise as a freshman and long stretches of inactivity last season while playing behind Diamond Stone and Damonte Dodd.
Needed to counter Purdue's tag team of 6-foot-9, 250-pound sophomore Caleb Swanigan and 7-2, 290-pound junior Isaac Haas, the 7-1, 250-pound Cekovsky more than held his own in backing up the 6-11, 250-pound Dodd.
Cekovsky scored 10 points, hitting each of the four filed goals he took and two of three free throws, including one that he banked in. Cekovsky also had a career-high six blocked shots to go with three rebounds and an assist.
The assist might have been the highlight of the game for the No. 17 Terps. Cekovsky drove the baseline and threw a wrap-around pass back in the lane to freshman wing Kevin Huerter, who dunked for a 52-40 lead.
While Maryland (20-3, 8-2) lost the lead and ultimately the game to end a seven-game winning streak, the importance of Cekovsky's contribution wasn't lost on the Terps.
"It's a big step for our team," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. "It's very encouraging. He really helped us defensively. We're the one team [in the Big Ten] that for the most part can go head-up with them at the post defensively. And if Ceko gets healthy hopefully it will open up a little more of a low post game to our offense, which will really help us as we move forward."
Cekovsky tweaked his foot toward the end of the game, which might explain why he wasn't on the court for the final play that ended with Huerter missing a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"We'll see what happens tonight and how he comes up tomorrow with it," Turgeon said Saturday of Cekovsky's foot. "He said he's fine."
Cekovsky also offered optimism — "It's good," he said — but this has already been an injury-marred season for the 22-year-old Slovakian. Cekovsky missed the entire preseason and the first four games of the regular season with a slow-to-heal hamstring injury, and then got hurt again after averaging 10 points in his first nine games.
During that span, Cekovsky twice recorded a career-high 16 points, against Kansas State and later against Howard. But after scoring 10 points in a Dec. 20 win over Charlotte at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, Cekovsky told Turgeon he "felt something" in his foot.
He missed a month.
Asked Friday how far he still had to go, Cekovsky said, "I'm getting there. Obviously I didn't practice a month and I didn't play games. In practice I'm getting better and I feel more comfortable."
Cekovsky doesn't look at the progress he made when he was healthy strictly in offensive terms.
"I don't think it's about points; I just want to help the team and be part of something special," he said. "Like when we started this year, we got the best start (20-2) in the history of the program. It's really nice to be a part of that."
Cekovsky admitted that it's been a challenge to stay positive through the injuries.
"It's obviously not easy," he said. "I've got the whole Maryland basketball [team] around me — the coaches, the players, the staff, the trainers, the doctors. So I'm trying to stay just positive. It is what it is and I have to deal with that. So I'm not worrying about it. I'm just focusing for the next game, the next practice."
Much more athletic than Dodd, Cekovsky brings a different dimension for the Terps in the low post. While he didn't get down the floor for a dunk as he did against Ohio State on Tuesday, Cekovsky got high in the air for a couple of lob dunks and also had a couple of spectacular blocks.
"It's what I'm always trying to do first, making an impact on defense, make some plays, some blocks, protect the rim. I was trying to do that. I'm getting there," Cekovsky said. "... It's just a process."
Huerter said Cekovsky's performance was a positive sign going down the stretch of the Big Ten season.
"I think that shows how deep our team is," Huerter said. "We know what Ceko's capable of before he got hurt, having him and Damonte and Ivan [Bender], and be able to rotate L.G. [Gill] in there, too, I think that's something we can really take advantage of that against teams that are really strong inside."