Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Alex Len remained relatively quiet in Maryland’s first two NIT wins last week, but his MVP-like performance at Coleman Coliseum Tuesday left Alabama fans resenting the seven-footer at the end of the night. It was “Len-sanity” in Tuscaloosa as the Terrapins knocked off the Crimson Tide 58-57 to advance to the semifinals in New York.
After jumping out to an early lead, the Terrapins sat Len down holding a 10-5 lead with 16:30 left in the first half. How did the Crimson Tide respond? A quick 8-0 run gave them their first lead of the game. No Len, advantage Tide. Keep that in mind.
With Len in the game, the Tide couldn’t make anything happen in the paint. Floaters, faders, back-downs, off-balance layups; it didn’t matter. The Ukrainian sophomore recorded three blocks in his first 15 minutes of action, but he probably altered three times that amount. Alabama headed into halftime down 31-24 shooting just 33.3 percent from the floor.
Head coach Anthony Grant wasn’t about to let this one slip away, though.
A rejuvenated Tide energized the crowd in the second half. “Our guys never stopped fighting, never quit, and at the end gave us a chance,” said Grant. Defensive adjustments ultimately put Grant’s squad in position for a last-second comeback.The atmosphere, which Grant later praised, clearly badgered the Terrapins, as multiple turnovers and traveling calls plagued them down the stretch.
Alabama rallied late. Len picked up two quick fouls and was forced to sit with 6:33 left to play. It was a one-point game within a minute of the big man taking a seat.
Maryland pulled back ahead with three consecutive three’s, but the Tide surged again. A dunk by Levi Randolph followed by an and-1 by Nick Jacobs amplified the crowd’s cheering to near ear-damaging decibels (or at least it seemed). The Tide pulled back within a single point, only to send Len to the line shooting two with 27 seconds to play. Clutch time? Not quite. He missed both, giving Alabama one last chance.
Queue the star performance again. Len redeemed himself by rejecting Rodney Cooper’s next layup attempt. Trevor Lacey was unable to answer on the following inbound, ending Alabama’s postseason run. “It was executed well, they defended it well, but Lace was able to free himself and I thought he got a pretty good look,” said Grant. “Unfortunately for us, it didn’t go in.”
Grant will now focus on how to grow from this season’s experience. He acknowledged his staff will be recruiting “one or two” new players, but he’ll have the majority of his roster back. “Self-reflect and improve,” he addressed as the main goals. On the other hand, the Terrapins head to Madison Square Garden to continue with their NIT Championship hopes fueling them forward.
“We’ve been talking about trying to get a great road win, and to get it in the postseason against a team that I thought should have been an NCAA Tournament team with 12 wins in the SEC is just a great win,” said Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon.
Turgeon can thank his center for guiding the team to victory. Len finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. He’s a fluid athlete with strong post moves. Add some weight to his lanky frame and his potential looks promising at the next level. The NBA scouts in attendance seemed to be in agreement on that point.
Jeremy Lin made his departure from the Knicks last year. Perhaps “Len-sanity” will provide a suitable replacement at the Garden. Maryland takes on the winner of Virginia vs. Iowa next week.