Maryland has flirted with late-game deficits in three of its first four games of the 2015-16 season, including Tuesday night’s 77-66 victory over Illinois State in the semifinals of the Cancun Challenge south of the border in Mexico.
Tuesday, Maryland trailed by five points with seven minutes remaining before ripping off a 25-9 run to finish the game and win by a comfortable-looking double-digit margin.
“To be honest with you, this is the best we’ve played. We got down five in the second half and kind of gutted it out,” head coach Mark Turgeon told CBS’s Doug Gottlieb in an on-court interview after the game.
“We showed a lot of guts tonight. We’re getting everybody’s best shot and we’re still getting used to that.”
The biggest reason for these close games and deficits late is now clear -- Maryland has serious trouble against small ball lineups. The domino effect that has followed the injury to sophomore guard Dion Wiley may have been more impactful than first expected and it shows itself most when mid-major shift wing players down into the post.
We saw it again on Tuesday. Each of Maryland’s three centers -- Damonte Dodd, Michal Cekovsky, and Diamond Stone -- had two fouls in the first half. It was too much to ask of them to expect a 6-10 or 6-11 player to chase around a quicker, more agile 6-7 forward.
That creates foul trouble and open shots for the opposition.
Once the second half came and Maryland was able to experiment with Jake Layman at the power forward spot or even the four-guards-and-a-big lineup of Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jaylen Brantley, Jared Nickens, and Dodd, they were able to get their footing and push back.
Smaller lineups allowed them to defend better, which forced Illinois State misses, which kept the Redbirds out of their press, which took pressure off of Trimble, which allowed him to create for others, which helped them to storm back.
Another small ball team awaits Wednesday when the Terrapins face Rhode Island in the Cancun Challenge championship game. We’ll see how they respond.