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Maryland basketball's win over Wisconsin came down to defense

Dez Wells starred, and Melo Trimble closed out the Badgers. But team defense made it all possible.

Maryland center Michal Cekovsky jostles for position against Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky.
Maryland center Michal Cekovsky jostles for position against Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin entered its game against Maryland on Tuesday night with the most efficient offense in the country, a scoring attack that's flirted with being the most efficient one ever. But that didn't show on this night, when the 14th-ranked Terrapins held the fifth-ranked Badgers to a season-low 53 points in a thriller of a home win.

It is clear that Maryland would not have won as it did, 59-53, without the offensive push it got from guards Dez Wells (26 points) and Melo Trimble (16). But no team wins a pure firefight against Bo Ryan's finely tuned offensive juggernaut. The Badgers entered with an opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency of 1.235 points per possession – the best mark in the country. On Tuesday, Maryland held the Badgers to 0.93.

Maryland's defense has been something of a quiet strength most of the year, ranking 46th in the country in its own adjusted efficiency metric coming into this game. But fine defensive teams have come up against Wisconsin repeatedly this season, and all but Duke were struck down when they met the Badgers with Frank Kaminsky, their national-player-of-the-year force of a center. This is the best player in the country – top-three if you're conservative – and to fight him, Maryland turned to an unexpected stopper.

"He's awesome. He's a great player, and he was really tough, playing against him, because he's more experienced than me," said Maryland freshman center Michal Cekovsky, who came off the bench to guard Kaminsky.

"We talked about him a lot. He used so many pump fakes, like chest fakes, so I tried to stay down," Cekovsky said, "not jump too much and try playing without fouls."

It isn't as if Kaminsky didn't get his. He had 18 points and 8 rebounds, but he needed 14 shots from the field to get to that good but not game-breaking total. Evan Smotrycz chipped in against him, but with Damonte Dodd in continual foul trouble, the unpleasant job of dealing with Kaminsky fell to Cekovsky – a lanky, 7-foot-1 center who had played a combined four minutes in Maryland's three prior games. His 24 minutes Tuesday were the most since Dec. 3. And on offense, Cekovsky scored on both his shots, a first-half dunk and a crafty second-half put-back. He had 6 rebounds.

"I knew this night was coming," said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, pointing to a month's worth of strong practices by his European freshman. "We've continued to work with him. He took on a challenge. He used his length."

Wells, the game's offensive star, noticed, too. "Cheko's been ready," he told a throng of media after the game.

The best thing for Maryland, really, was that Kaminsky's controlled damage against Cekovsky and company was the worst the Terps had to endure. Star forward Sam Dekker hit a pair of second-half three-pointers, but his 14 points required a bloated 12 shots. Ultra-efficient Wisconsin guards Bronson Koenig and Josh Gasser combined for 9 points on 3-of-17 shooting, making for the driest collective night of their – and their team's – season.

Wisconsin is the 23rd-best shooting team in the country, with an effective field goal percentage of 54 percent to its name. It shot almost equal to that overall rate on Tuesday, but the team's 6-of-22 showing on threes was dooming. Wisconsin was a better 14-of-30 from inside the arc, and it wasn't enough. That's because Maryland, somewhat unusually, dictated a slow pass from start to finish, limiting Wisconsin to only 57 possessions. That's a full two possessions off the Badgers' ordinary offensive pace, and without three-pointers falling, they simply didn't have enough time or chances to make up the difference inside.

"We weren't shooting the ball as well as we are capable of," Dekker said. "They played better than us. They came at us right away, and they were the aggressors."

For his part, Kaminsky was held to just 6 points in the first half. He had 12 in the second, but even then, Maryland didn't let him become the focal point of Wisconsin's offense. He took just 27 percent of Wisconsin's shots – a huge figure, normally, but one that's inches lower than his usual rate – on a night when the rest of his team shot 34 percent against his 50 percent from the field. Maryland didn't negate him, but it marginalized him as much as could be asked.

"He was getting a lot of help thrown at him, and that means when he gets rid of the ball, you're going to give up three-point looks," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "If you don't hit them, it puts you in a hole."

Wisconsin only hit 27 percent of them. Maryland gambled by zeroing in on Kaminsky. It was a smart bet.

"The past couple games, we didn't really pay attention to film and knowing personnel," Trimble said. "I think, in today's game, we did."