BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Maryland returned to the Barclays Center a year older and maybe a year wiser, but the Terps seemed to follow the same script against No. 18 Connecticut on Friday night that they did in a three-point loss to No. 3 Kentucky in last season’s opener.
Seemingly as nervous as they were against the Wildcats, the Terps fell behind early and by a lot — 12 at halftime, 17 early in the second half — before staging a furious comeback that, again, fell short.
Junior point guard Dez Wells missed two shots in the closing seconds and Maryland lost, 78-77, before a pro-Terps crowd of 12,867. The Terps were left without a signature early-season win they likely would have been able to put on an NCAA Tournament resume in a few months.
“Obviously, this would have been a great win, because Connecticut is going to win a lot of games,” third-year coach Mark Turgeon said. “The first half felt like last year [against Kentucky]. I felt like we never got over the hump in this one. It just felt like the ball bounced their way more than it bounced our way. But our guys never gave up. We just didn’t get it done.”
Wells, who took over last week at the point after sophomore Seth Allen broke his foot, missed badly on a short floater with a little over six seconds to go after the Huskies missed their second straight 1-and-1 at the free-throw line, then watched an 18-footer from the right wing rim out with under a second left following a Maryland timeout.
“I missed a shot I believe I can make,” Wells said. “Obviously, Coach believes in me because he wanted the ball in my hands in the last seconds. We came up short tonight but we fought hard. I’m proud of my team and my coaches. We’ll get the next one. … We have a long season ahead of us.”
Asked whether Friday’s defeat felt worse than last year's, given Maryland’s higher expectations, Wells said: “A loss is a loss; it feels the same. Different team, different identity. UConn is a really good team. Their two small guards are really good. But we came short today. There’s no moral victory in it.”
Turgeon thought Wells didn’t get the ball soon enough on an inbounds pass from Evan Smotrycz before the first shot, allowing the Huskies to set their defense and collapse around the 6-foot-5 guard as he elevated for his driving shot.
The second, mid-range shot is one Wells had hit with more regularity in practice during the preseason. Wells finished with 13 points — as did Smotrycz and junior guard Nick Faust (City) — to go along with seven rebounds, six assists and six turnovers. Four of the turnovers came in the first half, during which Wells missed all three shots he took.
“I thought the first half he was trying to do too much, he wasn’t listening as much as he should be listening during timeouts. He got more comfortable in the second half,” Turgeon said. “It’s hard on him. He competes. He made some big plays for us down the stretch. Dez will get better. We are who we are.”
For the first 30 minutes, it appeared as if the Terps were a team in need of a seasoned point guard and a big man who can do more than set screens and play defense. But Wells, as well as freshman Roddy Peters (five points, two assists, three turnovers in 18 minutes), played better at the point in the second half, and sophomore forward Charles Mitchell gave Maryland a huge lift off the bench.
Playing with two early fouls, Mitchell provided the offensive spark the Terps have yet to receive from fellow sophomore Shaquille Cleare (four points, one rebound in 19 minutes of a starting role) in replacing Alex Len. Mitchell finished with 12 points and gave Maryland some much-needed energy off the bench.
“Charles plays hard, Charles competes,” Turgeon said. “He didn’t get the rebounds [only three in 20 minutes] like he wanted, but he made some nice plays for us.”
It helped the Terps that Connecticut’s star, senior point guard Shabazz Napier, got into foul trouble in the second half after dominating the game with 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
A technical foul against Napier with the Huskies leading 67-50 started an 11-0 run by Maryland, and Connecticut nearly collapsed when Napier fouled out with 1:30 remaining and Wells about to trim the deficit to three, 78-75. Wells then hit a short jumper to cut it to one.
But the Terps couldn’t finish, just as they couldn't last year against Kentucky and several other times throughout last season. As much as Turgeon hopes his Terps can build off what they did to give themselves a chance to win, his players know they can’t bury themselves with double-digit deficits and expect to come back and beat a good team like the Huskies.
“I hate to lose, whether it’s [by] one or 15. It’s still not ideal, but I was proud of the way we fought and didn’t give up. That will definitely carry on throughout the rest of the season,” Smotrycz said.
Said Turgeon: “I learned a lot about my team tonight. I was proud of them. The difference between one point is unbelievable, the highs and lows of sports.”