Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon stepped up to the podium after the Terps’ game against Michigan State looking as stern as ever, but beneath the furrowed brows and lines on his face, there was an obvious look of disappointment.
“They hit us between the eyes,” he said after the game. “We weren’t ready to play in the second half.”
Through the first 20 minutes, Maryland (15-8, 4-6) exceeded all expectations against No. 6 Michigan State (20-3, 8-2). The close losses, the season-ending injuries and the depleted roster all seemed to evaporate in the minds of the players and the 17,950 sellout crowd, as the Terps resembled the team they were anticipated to be in the preseason.
But as Maryland’s 13-point halftime lead dwindled away into a deficit, the reality slowly began to set in: the Terps were going to lose this game.
As Maryland walked off the court after a 74-68 loss to the Spartans, the disappointment on Turgeon’s face was worn by every player, and the frustration was apparent in their voices.
“It’s frustrating, because it seems like we keep not making the right plays down the stretch,” said sophomore guard Kevin Huerter. “All the big plays are the plays we need to make. We’re not making all the little plays, and that’s why we keep losing close games at the end.”
The second-half collapse that Maryland experienced is the third time in four games it was in position to win against a conference opponent. After starting the game so well shooting 50 percent with points coming from six different players, the Terps’ offense wilted to shoot 34.9 percent for the rest of the game.
But despite the recent slip ups, it didn’t appear to rattle the Terps’ confidence. The team started with a quick 8-0 run and held the lead for the entire first half.
Defensively, the Terps held the Spartans — statistically one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten — to just 9-of-33 from the floor. The team also held sophomore guard Miles Bridges — the only player in the country averaging at least 17 points, seven rebounds and 2.9 assists per game — to just three points on 1-of-7 shooting.
“It was a very tough game, I thought they had their guys ready to play and I thought they played awfully well [in] the first half,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo.
Meanwhile, Maryland was having one of its best halves since defeating Minnesota on Jan. 18. A jumper from senior center Michal Cekovsky with less than five minutes left in the first half gave the Terps a 28-18 lead, and a three from Jared Nickens in the final seconds of the half put the team up 37-24 at the break.
That lead vanished soon after the second half began, as a 3-pointer by Jared Jackson, Jr. sparked a 18-4 run that helped tie the game 46-46 with 12 minutes left to play.
“We were in bad transition two straight possessions — same two guys,” Turgeon said. “And they made shots. … Shots they might have missed in the first half. And they were ready to play. There’s a reason they were preseason No. 1. They’ve got a lot of pros running around on their side.”
The Spartans’ players credited a fiery Izzo at halftime for the sudden rally to start the half.
“He definitely got after me a little bit, got after all of us, but he could kind of see in all of our eyes that we were locked in, we were focused,” said Michigan State sophomore guard Cassius Winston. “We were ready to do this so he got after us a little bit but he couldn’t really do much because everyone was so focused, we were so ready.”
A jumper from sophomore forward Nick Ward put the Spartans up 50-48, and the team held the lead for the final 10 minutes of the game. Michigan State led by as many as eight points, and though Nickens cut the lead down to two with 52 seconds left, the Spartans made its nine final free throws to keep the lead out of Maryland’s grasp.
Jackson, Jr. finished the game with 12 points as one of four Spartans with double figures. Bridges had 11 points, while Joshua Langford led all scorers with 19.
Huerter led the Terps with 17 points. Nickens added 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, while sophomore Anthony Cowan and freshman Darryl Morsell had 12 points each.
With the loss, Maryland’s NCAA Tournament hopes are quickly diminishing. The team has nearly half of its conference games left to play, starting with No. 3 Purdue on Jan. 31. Any scenario where Maryland makes the tournament will likely come with the team winning the majority of its games for the remainder of the season.
On if losing against Michigan State makes the later games more important, Turgeon said, “I don’t care about that. All I care about is my guys and I want to get better. I’m not caught up in, ‘We have to win this game to be in that tournament.’ That doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that we play our best basketball and the rest will take care of itself.”
Tipoff against the Boilermakers will be at 8:30 p.m.
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