After making three consecutive NCAA tournaments under the guidance of former guard and three-time leading scorer Melo Trimble, the Maryland men's basketball team hoped to earn its fourth consecutive postseason berth in a more balanced manner this year.
Unlike the previous three campaigns, when Trimble repeatedly lifted the Terps to victory with his clutch play, no one was expected to drag this unit to a successful season. Instead, coach Mark Turgeon wanted shared contributions from a deep roster that included three returning sophomore starters.
So, Maryland should have been fine Friday in its final nonconference tune up against UMBC, even after losing Justin Jackson — a 6-foot-7 forward projected to have an NBA future — for the remainder of the season with a torn labrum. He'd missed the past three games, but his diagnosis wasn't announced until this week.
Others could have elevated their games in Jackson's place, just as they had earlier in the year.
But the Terps struggled mightily against the Retrievers without Jackson's blend of playmaking, rebounding and versatile defense. They scored a season-worst 18 first-half points and committed 10 first-half turnovers before pulling away late for a 66-45 win.
"The first half, and I've been doing this a long time, was one of the worst halves I think one of my teams has ever played," Turgeon said. "We were rusty. We had no gumption."
One game away from the restart of Big Ten play Jan. 2 against Penn State, it was a disheartening performance that lacked the cohesion of the Terps' first 14 games.
Jackson received plenty of help during Maryland's 11-2 start from fellow second-year standouts Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter, who both delivered in moments the Toronto native struggled. Cowan scored 25 points in an impressive 79-65 win over Butler as Jackson managed just four points on 2-for-4 shooting. Huerter scored 23 points in a 72-70 loss against Syracuse, while Jackson contributed just eight points.
The Terps' role players, meanwhile, provided an additional lift. Freshmen Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell added energy, guards Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley added outside shooting and center Michal Cekovsky brought low-post scoring.
Rather than stepping up against UMBC, an America East team with an 8-5 record not expected to make the game close, Maryland appeared disjointed until the final 12 minutes. The Terps will face stiffer opposition next month as conference competition resumes, and they'll need to be much better than they showed on Friday to build a respectable tournament resume.
Huerter was forgettable in the first half, scoring just four points and committing three turnovers. He looked like a different player out of the break, though, helping the Terps pull away with a scorching second-half display that included 16 points and 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range.
Like Huerter, Cowan bounced back from a putrid start to contribute in the second-half. Yet as the point guard and de facto leader of the offense without Jackson, he simply wasn't efficient enough against a poor defensive unit. Cowan finished 4-for-13 from the floor but did chip in nine rebounds and seven assists.
Morsell was a rare bright spot in the first half with five points, two rebounds, an assist and a block. He then set the tone in the second period by putting the Terps on the board with a fastbreak layup, typifying the quickness he played with throughout the contest. After experiencing some inconsistency following a strong first month to the year, Morsell can use this performance as positive momentum heading into Big Ten play.
For most of the year, Fernando gave the Terps a jolt whenever they fell into a slump. His scoring, highlight-reel blocks and energetic outbursts became an expected contribution through 13 contests. But he wasn't very effective against UMBC when the game was close, with six of his eight points coming late in garbage time. He also needs to limit his fouling, as his four violations once again placed him on the bench for long stretches.
Making his first start of the year after consecutive double digit scoring displays, Nickens crashed back to earth against the Retrievers. The catch-and-shoot specialist was 1-for-5 shooting, with his only made basket coming with about two minutes remaining.