Len’s lay-in provides crucial layer for Terps

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The vibe in Comcast Center throughout Wednesday night was that Maryland badly needed to beat North Carolina State. You might even say the Terrapins’ collective backs were against the wall. 

They were 0-2 in the ACC and trailing by a point ready to inbound the ball near midcourt with 5 seconds left on a night when scoring was at a premium. Surely they were headed to a dreaded 0-3 start while taking residence in a huge, deep hole not consistent with most teams darting toward NCAA Tournament inclusion.

Call it a pass or shot, it doesn’t really matter much at this point, because when junior point guard Pe’Shon Howard’s runner from just outside the left side of the lane appeared to fall short of the rim with the clock winding down, the Terps were a certain goner. Or so it seemed for a split second. 

Yet, 7-foot-1 Alex Len then made the play of the season so far in the ACC by grabbing the errant shot and immediately dropping it through the cylinder to give the Terps a one-point lead with .9 seconds left. NC State failed to officially get a shot off and Maryland earned a crucial victory that could have changed the direction of its season. 

“You have to be good and you have to be lucky,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. “We were pretty lucky at the end to get the win.”

While many of Maryland’s students stormed the floor celebrating the thrilling victory, many others quickly debated Howard’s intent. The topic was not lost on the media, either. Was it really a shot? That a runner would fall that short of the rim in a highly-contested situation isn’t much of a surprise, especially in a game such as Wednesday’s. The teams gritted out that game from basically the opening tip.

Maryland did jump out to a 10-0 lead while the No. 14 Wolfpack — perhaps dealing with a bit of a hangover after knocking Duke from its No. 1 ranking four days earlier — failed to score on their first 11 possessions. And while NC State eventually got going, it was never easy for the Wolfpack. In fact, they entered as the nation’s leading field-goal percentage team converting better than 52 percent of their shots but made just 31.1 percent against the Terps. 

As for Howard’s miss, maybe Len revealed something the official scorer wasn’t thinking. Howard was charged with a shot attempt, and while Len wasn’t really sure, he gladly spoke for Howard.

“Pe’Shon says it wasn’t a miss, it was a pass,” Len said. “The play was for Logan (Aronhalt), but Pe’Shon was driving it. He said it was a pass. I don’t know what it was, I just tipped it in.”

The delicious irony of the situation is seated about 25 feet from the play in the front row of press row was Dereck Whittenburg, who was serving as an NBA scout. Many pundits and fans still say he shot the greatest air ball in basketball history, and others side with Whittenburg, who still claims, albeit half-jokingly, his 35-foot shot that fell short of the rim but was grabbed and slammed home by Lorenzo Charles to give NC State the 1983 national championship was really a pass. 

This time NC State was victimized. And while Len’s put-back won’t go down in hoops annals anywhere outside of College Park, unlike Whittenburg’s and Charles’ famous moment, it does carry significant meaning for the Terrapins. 

A loss and they’d be at 0-3 in the ACC and 13-4 overall against a largely soft nonconference schedule heading to hungry North Carolina this weekend. The Terrapins have won at the Dean Dome before, but it’s not a place anyone goes to get well. So at least now, Len’s put back has given the Terps a tad bit of wiggle room. It also has given Turgeon’s team a needed win over a high-profile team.

NC State may be the best team in the ACC and will finish with an RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) in the top-25, so this victory for Maryland could go a long way in getting it into the NCAA Tournament. 

“It’s a great feeling,” said Terps’ freshman guard Seth Allen. “All week, coach talked about making a mark in history. He’s always stressed that it takes hard work. I think we worked hard and got a great win.”

Historical in its own way, yes. 

A crucial layer to the season, even more so.