In the big picture, the Terps can actually feel pretty good about their showing against one of the best teams in the nation.
But a 14-for-30 performance from the free throw line will only leave Maryland thinking what might have been in a 79-70 loss to Pittsburgh Thursday night in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.
Lacking the experience and size of No. 5 Pitt, Maryland hung tough in the second half despite a 21-4 Panthers run that saw the deficit grow to 42-29 less than three minutes into the second half. The Terps responded with a 17-4 run of their own to tie the game with 12:47 to play, but would get no closer, dropping their first game of the season.
Senior Cliff Tucker led all scorers with 17 points, once again looking like the Terps’ only viable option from the perimeter. Sophomore Jordan Williams added 14 points and nine rebounds, but wore down against an imposing frontcourt that outrebounded Maryland by a whopping 43 to 23 margin.
Newcomers Pe’Shon Howard and Terrell Stoglin, who had been bright spots in the opening week of the season against less-than-stellar competition, looked very much like two freshmen playing their first game at Madison Square Garden, but we knew there would be nights like this.
Sean Mosley (the Terps’ leading returning scorer) struggled offensively for the third straight game, managing just seven points while battling foul trouble much of the night.
And yet, Gary Williams can point to one of the simplest — and most critical — aspects of the game to explain why the Terps will play against Illinois in the consolation game Friday (5:00 p.m. on ESPN2) instead of competing in the championship game.
From the charity stripe, Williams was just 2-for-7, Mosley 1-for-3, Dino Gregory 1-for-3, and James Padgett 0-for-4, as the Terps shot 46.7 percent from the line in what has become a disturbing early-season trend.
In a 75-74 victory over the College of Charleston last Wednesday, Maryland needed a last-second shot by Howard to overcome a 5-for-18 free-throw shooting performance (27.8 percent) and prevent an embarrassing loss.
Having lost their top three scorers from a season ago and lacking the 3-point shooting to quickly erase deficits, the Terps must rely on the transition game and taking the ball inside to score — or to get to the free-throw line. The Panthers obliged with the latter, giving the Terps 30 free-throw attempts. Even an average performance from the line — such as Pitt’s 70.3 percent clip — would have created a much different game in the final minutes when Maryland had no choice but to foul.
Fortunately, poor free-throw shooting is correctable — or at least improvable — and you can bet the Maryland coach will have his team working feverishly to refine its touch from the line.
It will be interesting to see how Maryland responds Friday — especially without the senior leadership of Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes, and Landon Milbourne — but the Terps showed they were capable of competing with one of the better teams in the country Thursday night, suggesting this might be a better season than many expect.
But their margin of error is too minute to survive a “Shaq”-like performance from the charity stripe.
On a night in which they valiantly scrapped against a better team, Maryland’s biggest enemy was itself.