With its back against the wall, Maryland men’s basketball pulled out one of its most important wins of the season, defeating Minnesota, 72-59, on Valentine’s Day to move to 11-10 on the season and keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
The Terps were locked in from the game’s opening tip, bringing that same defensive intensity to their opponent that they did in their previous win over the Gophers on Jan. 16, in which Minnesota was held to a season-low 49 points. This is their first series sweep against an opponent this season.
Junior guard Aaron Wiggins continued to display his ability to be a high-level scorer, pouring in a game-high 17 points, including a high degree of difficult jumpers to put the game away for good.
With the win, Maryland puts itself in much better position to get off the bubble and back into the good graces of the selection committee, but will need to carry this momentum into its final six games of the season.
Here are our biggest takeaways.
Maryland played its most complete first half of the season
For much of this season, Maryland has too often been set back by slow starts to games, especially on the offensive end.
The Terps have been held to less than 30 first half points eight different times this season, often forcing them to have to play from behind and have to rally back in order to win games.
That was anything but the case Sunday night, as Maryland came out of the gate firing on all cylinders to put the Gophers in a massive hole early on.
Trailing 3-2 at the 18:08 mark, junior guard Eric Ayala spotted up and buried a three-pointer from the left wing, the team’s first of the night. On the next possession, sophomore forward Donta Scott took his defender all the way to the rim before laying it off to a cutting Darryl Morsell, who finished through contact for the hoop plus the harm.
The pair of triples from Morsell and Ayala helped kickstart a 11-0 run over the next three minutes, capped off by an Wiggins three-pointer from the corner to put the Terps up 16-3 in the blink of an eye.
“We’ve been working at it, we’ve been working hard at it, but it looks better when shots go in,” head coach Mark Turgeon said of his team’s offensive display. “We’ve had some open looks in the past that haven’t gone in and tonight we made some open looks, which was good.”
But what was just as impressive as Maryland’s offensive performance was its play on the defensive end, refusing to allow Minnesota to get into any kind of offensive rhythm in the first half of Sunday’s game.
Utilizing a 3-2 zone look, the Terps forced the Gophers to operate almost exclusively on the perimeter, an area in which they’ve struggled this season, shooting just 32.4 percent from three-point range. Minnesota shot just 3-for-14 from beyond the arc in the first half, with its leading scorer in Marcus Carr being held to just seven points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field thanks to a strong effort defensively by Morsell.
“I like to compete. And I know if he has a tough night and he can’t really get going, it’s gonna be hard for their offense to get going,” Morsell said. “I set my goal when I stepped on the court just to try to make it as tough as possible for him.”
The team’s strong first half performance allowed Maryland to take a comfortable 44-28 lead into the halftime break, setting the tone for the Terps pick up the crucial win on their home floor.
Once again, Maryland’s defense was key
The constant theme throughout the Terps’ Big Ten victories has been stellar defense, and that remained true Sunday night.
Maryland held Minnesota to shoot 32.2% from the floor, with the team making just 19 of its 59 shots for its fourth-worst percentage of the season; another one of that top four came against the Terps in the prior matchup. The 19 made field goals is tied for its worst in 2020-21. The Golden Gophers also struggled beyond the arc with a 28.6% mark in the game.
Minnesota also had one of its worst performances down low. The team scored 18 points in the paint, tied (with the other matchup in this series) for its second worst of the season, thanks to Maryland’s lockdown defense.
“[I’m] really proud of my group. Defensively we were terrific,” Turgeon said. “They’re not easy to guard. They’re really good. They got inside game, they got guys that can beat you off the dribble. Darryl was terrific again on Carr, did a great job. Our post defense on Robbins was terrific. Our rotations on the double teams were good. So did a lot of good things tonight.”
Under Morsell’s leadership and key defensive play, Maryland forced Carr into his second lowest scoring game of the season. The guard came into the contest averaging 19.9 points per game and managed 25 points last time against the Terps, but this time around he had his second-worst scoring performance of the season.
Carr had nine points on 4-of-15 (26.7%) shooting from the field and only made one of six three-point attempts, completely stifled by the hounding Morsell.
“Great scorers always get their shot going, they always get to their spots on the court, so I just tried to make it as tough as possible,” Morsell said. “My bigs helped me out on both screens. We was flying around with defense. It wasn’t just me, it was a great team effort tonight to make it difficult for him as well as their team.”
Galin Smith played his best game of the season
When the senior graduate transfer first arrived in College Park, he knew he had big shoes to fill.
The Terps have had the luxury of relying on guys like Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith to anchor the interior in the past, but were left with a relative unknown in Galin Smith coming into the 2020-21 season.
After going in and out of the starting lineup and playing as few as five minutes in some games, Smith looked to have turned a corner on Sunday night. Despite coming off the bench in this one, Smith made a meaningful impact on both ends of the floor each time Turgeon called his number.
Smith received multiple deep touches in the paint throughout the game, looking far more composed and in control each time he got the ball and showing some significant growth in regard to his ability to score in the post. He buried pair of hook shots in the low-post and showed his ability to run the floor with a monster two-handed dunk after swatting a shot at the rim.
Really good sequence here from Galin Smith, sending back a shot at the rim on one end before throwing down a two-handed dunk on the other to put Maryland up 20-6.— Henry Malone (@henrymalone_) February 15, 2021
The Terps are in control early. pic.twitter.com/oW9b4vYXQb
He finished with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, marking just his third double-digit scoring outing of the season and first of Big Ten play. He routinely made the right pass whenever the defense collapsed on him inside as well, notching a career-high four assists and helping lift the level of play of his teammates.
Is this the Galin Smith game?— Henry Malone (@henrymalone_) February 15, 2021
This has been by far the best we've seen @GalinSmith30 play this season, making a really good pass here to @EA_Glo for the corner three.
He's up to 4 assists tonight, a career-high for the big man. pic.twitter.com/BE3Mc9tUpY
“You could tell that he was just locked in, he was ready to make plays for our team to win,” Wiggins said. “Every time we gave him the ball in the post and they tried to double or somebody helped too much, he was able to make the right plays, and that’s really good for us.”
Smith may not be a starter for the Terps going forward, but if he can continue to hold his own with the talented big men in the conference, he could make a massive difference.
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable out there,” Smith said. “A lot of that is just coming out of my teammates. They’re letting me know that they got confidence in me, and with that I just take it and run with it.”
Scoring and minutes were spread around
From the get go, Turgeon made an effort to make frequent rotations and get a bunch of players into the game. The matchup with Minnesota was Maryland’s first of four games in a three-day span, which he was clearly mindful of.
The head coach played eight different players in the first 10 minutes, during which all but one of them scored. Nine Terps saw the floor Sunday night, with all but two scoring or seeing less than 15 minutes; Reese Mona played five minutes and Aquan Smart played three.
“I like it. Long season, we got a couple games coming up. It was good. You know, keep his guys fresh, give the other guys confidence,” Morsell said of Turgeon’s decision. “...I love using our depth, especially with this stretch coming up.”
Just as the minutes spread around, so was the scoring. This was Maryland’s first game with four players in double digits since it faced Michigan on Jan. 19, though that showing ended in a blowout loss.
Wiggins led the way with 17 points as he continues to establish himself as a reliable scoring presence for the Terps, Morsell had 13, Ayala had 12 and Smith had 10. Scott, Hakim Hart and Jairus Hamilton combined for 20 points as well.
In addition to scoring, rebounds and assists were a team effort. Four players finished with at least five rebounds, with Scott leading the way with 11. Four continued to be the magic number for Maryland, as that many players had at least three assists, led by four from Smith.
The Terps have back-to-back games against Nebraska coming up this week and it will be key to get consistent play all-around for them to come out on top.