Albanys Gerardo Suero passes the ball betwen Maryland defenders Nick Faust… (Gene Sweeney Jr/BALTIMORE…)
Having missed Maryland’s first 10 games for violating NCAA eligibility rules, 7-foot-1 center Alex Len wasted no time Wednesday demonstrating why the wait was worth it.
And the 11,751 Maryland fans who showed up at Comcast Center to witness Len’s college debut showered the Ukrainian freshman with praise for his role in the Terps’ 83-72 victory over Albany and the welcome depth, defensive punch and offensive potential his addition represents.
Len registered the first of his five dunks 54 seconds into the game. He drew his first standing ovation after 12 minutes. And he finished with 14 points, a team-high eight rebounds and three blocks, taking his seat on the bench in the waning minutes to chants of “We love you, Alex!”
With his towering height, imposing reach and deft timing, Len gives Maryland (8-3) a dimension it has lacked, adding explosiveness to the Terps’ hardworking front court of James Padgett and Berend Weijs.
But Len isn’t a savior, as Coach Mark Turgeon cautioned in October with Terrapins fans fretting over whether the NCAA would ever allow him to suit up.
After squandering a 13-point first-half lead against Albany, Maryland needed the shooting skill and defensive grit of its full complement of scholarship players — particularly sophomore Terrell Stoglin and junior forward James Padgett — to avert what would have been an embarrassing defeat.
Once again, Stoglin came up with the big baskets at the crucial moments, leading the Terps with 22 points (including a career-high six three-pointers). He and Len were joined in double figures by Padgett (13), sophomore guard Pe’Shon Howard (11) and freshman Nick Faust (10).
Howard took a significant step forward, getting the start at point guard in his second game back from the broken left foot he suffered in October. He supplied eight of the Terps’ season-high 19 assists but chided himself for the poor decisions that led to his six turnovers.
With the victory, Maryland extended its winning streak to five games and beat an opponent by double digits for the first time.
Stoglin credited the addition of Len, who played 27 minutes, with elevating the team’s play.
“It was very fun because we had more options,” Stoglin said of Len. “The pressure was taken off me. We felt we could go inside more. . . . We are a deeper team now, with a good bench. We’re looking more like a team now.”
Turgeon had said before Wednesday’s game that he expected Len to be nervous in his college debut. The coach’s solution was to throw his young big man into the fray immediately, inserting him in the starting lineup.
Len’s opening minutes as a Terp could hardly have gone better. He stuffed a one-handed dunk on an alley-oop from Stoglin. He occupied two defenders on another sequence, freeing up Stoglin for his first three-pointer. And he made the first five shots he attempted.
With Howard starting at the point, Faust came off the bench.
Maryland bolted to a 27-13 lead, shooting nearly 65 percent from the field in the early going while holding Albany under 27 percent.
The Terps led by 13 with 7:06 remaining in the first half, but a stretch of careless ball-handling helped Albany to an 8-1 run. The Great Danes (7-6) added a pair of three-pointers, punctuated by Faust’s second air ball from long range, to pull within two (36-34) with 2:40 to play.
And Len closed the period as he started it, with a dunk, which nudged Maryland to a 44-39 lead at the break.
Albany’s Luke Devlin opened the second half with a three-pointer, and the Great Danes took the lead on a layup by Gerardo Suero (22 points). But with Padgett hammering the boards, grabbing seven of Maryland’s season-high 49 rebounds, the Terps stormed back with a 13-0 run to reclaim the momentum for good.