Penn State halts No. 4 Maryland men’s basketball’s undefeated start, 76-69

Coach Mark Turgeon during Maryland men's basketball's 59-58 win over Illinois on Dec. 7, 2019. (Cam Andrews/The Diamondback)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Assistant coach Bino Ranson fell out of his chair once he saw Penn State guard Jamari Wheeler leap highest among a group of Maryland men’s basketball players, tipping the ball back out for his teammates to extend the possession.

And as Ranson scrambled back into his seat, guard Myles Dread cut into the lane and sank a runner, the first of three straight baskets that pushed the No. 4 Terps to a double-digit deficit once again in the first half Tuesday. Wheeler streaked down the floor for the next score, finishing off one of Maryland’s litany of turnovers with a lay-in. Forward Mike Watkins added another second-chance put-back to leave coach Mark Turgeon fuming.

The sequence, still in the early-goings of a game Penn State would eventually win 76-69, encapsulated the bamboozling nature of the Terps’ performance. Turgeon turned toward his bench frequently in frustration, the giveaways kept piling up and cold shooting persisted.

For a team ranked as highly as it is, Tuesday’s display wasn’t all that different from some other showings this season. The main difference, however, was how Turgeon’s team never found an answer for the head-scratching miscues.

“We have a long ways to go as a team,” Turgeon said. “Sometimes when you keep winning, you don’t realize it. Coaches do. But hopefully tonight, with this loss, our guys will realize we have a long ways to go.”

[Read more: Without Bruno Fernando, Maryland basketball is still searching for post-up answers]

Maryland (10-1, 1-1 Big Ten) looked lost at times during its Big Ten-opening win over Illinois on Saturday, needing a 15-point comeback and late-game heroics from guard Anthony Cowan to steal a one-point victory at Xfinity Center. After that game, Turgeon said his team was lucky to have opened the conference slate 1-0, extending the Terps’ undefeated run to 10 straight games.

While that effort may have served as a wake-up call, Maryland opened up at the Bryce Jordan Center flat once more — on its way to a fourth straight loss in State College — turning the ball over on six straight possessions midway through the opening period.

By the time guard Serrel Smith’s pass to Donta Scott deflected off the forward and out of bounds, the Terps’ 12th turnover in as many minutes surpassed their season average. Maryland finished with 13 in the first half — and 20 overall — compared to Penn State’s eight overall.

“Think we’re definitely doing a lot of dribbling, especially on my part as well,” Cowan said. “Just got to move the ball a little bit more.”

With .6 seconds remaining before halftime, guard Myreon Jones caught an in-bounds pass in the corner and chucked up a fade-away three. He swished it, sending the Terps into the locker room, down 40-30.

[Read more: “We gotta be better”: Maryland men’s basketball looks to learn from lackluster first half]

Despite cleaning up some of its play in the second half, guard Eric Ayala — who carried his squad early and finished with 15 points — threw away a pass on the first possession. Wheeler missed the ensuing fast-break attempt, though, and a back-and-forth final 20 minutes began, allowing the Terps to get back into the contest.

“We competed that second half,” Turgeon said. “We tried as hard as we could try. Just couldn’t get over the hump.”

Getting within five points remained a struggle. Guard Aaron Wiggins hit from deep just to have forward Lamar Stevens — who chipped in 15 points — push the Nittany Lions back to an eight-point edge. Morsell converted on a three-point play to pull his team within 49-44, but Jones knocked down a trey to re-establish an eight-point cushion.

And while Morsell and Cowan splashed from deep to draw Maryland within 52-50, a 6-0 run pushed Penn State (8-2, 1-1) back on top by eight. During that stretch, Cowan threw away a pass out of a timeout to Izaiah Brockington, who raced to the rim and finished with a thunderous dunk that earned the crowd’s roaring approval.

“Man, what a spark he gives us off the bench with his speed and his athleticism and his toughness and his ability to guard,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said, “but also get us critical, critical baskets.”

Later, with under five minutes to play, the Terps once more got within three points. As if on cue, Brockington hit a three as the shot-clock sounded and Jones converted at the rim, forcing Turgeon into another timeout.

On Saturday night, when the Nittany Lions faced No. 3 Ohio State, the Buckeyes poured on 60 second-half points to finish off a 32-point victory. Maryland, supposedly the next-best team in the country, couldn’t do anything of the sort in its first true road game.

“I think just over-dribbling,” Ayala said. “Even if we don’t have every offense in that we would like to have in, we’ve still got enough to make sure we get it down and execute. We just probably didn’t execute as well tonight.”

Unlike other slow starts that have persisted later and later into contests during their 10-0 start, the Terps couldn’t overcome the fatal combination on display at the Bryce Jordan Center. And for the fourth straight time, Penn State knocked off a visiting Maryland squad.

Only this time, as fans spilled onto the floor at the final buzzer, that Maryland squad had a No. 4 beside its name and an especially large target on its back.

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