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Three takeaways from Maryland men’s basketball’s upset win over No. 17 Illinois

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The Terps finally closed out a conference game in regulation.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland men’s basketball rallied to upset No. 17 Illinois in College Park on Friday night as it captured the 81-65 win.

The Terps desperately needed to get back into the win column after dropping its last two games and five of its last six entering the matchup. Maryland officially got its revenge on Illinois as well, it fell to the Fighting Illini back on Jan. 6.

“This was a high-quality, Big Ten game,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “As a staff, we’re extremely happy and proud of the group for their effort and their grit to come away with a win.”

Maryland improved to 10-9 on the season with the victory and 2-6 in conference play.

Here are three takeaways from the Terps’ win.

Maryland had one of its best offensive performances against a Big Ten program this season.

With Kofi Cockburn out for the game, Maryland’s offense completely opened up against the Fighting Illini, especially in the first half to kick off the game. Interim head coach Danny Manning clearly instilled some kind of message to attack the basket at will against a more vulnerable defense, and it did just that throughout the game.

Maryland was relentless inside and as a result, it racked up a high shooting percentage early on. Plenty of the Terps’ first-half points came from in and around the paint. Maryland shot 7-for-9 (78%) to begin the game, a rather different scenario from what it usually presented against the elite Big Ten programs so far this season.

Maryland’s primary scorers, senior guard Eric Ayala and junior forward Donta Scott did a lot of the damage inside, which opened up the Terps’ offense elsewhere. Ayala and Scott combined for 14 of the team’s first 20 points. That guard-forward offensive duo finished with a total of 17 points at the end of the first half. Scott led with a team-high 10.

The Terps kept on going inside near the end of the first half. Two consecutive dunks from Qudus Wahab and six late points helped Maryland grab the lead going into the break. Especially after a 19-point first-half dud against Michigan a few days prior, the Terps did their part offensively in the opening 20 minutes.

Maryland’s 37 points in the first half, on which it shot 52% from the floor, was the third-most it has scored in the first half of a game against a Big Ten team this season.

The Terps’ efficiency on offense, especially inside, carried over into the second half as well. Maryland was outscored 13-5 in the first few minutes of the half but stormed back because of its offensive effort.

Maryland was consistently able to attack the paint with ease, and as a result, it ended up scoring 40 of its 81 total points in the paint.

“We emphasize that every game it doesn’t matter who we are playing,” Manning said about getting his team an excess of paint touches. “We want paint touches, we want to be the first team to the bonus and we were able to execute and do that.”

It shot 13-for-24 (54.2%) from the field in the second half alone, boosting the team’s final percentage to 53% for the full game. It was just the third time all season that Maryland scored at least 70 points against a Big Ten team. The 81 points were the Terps’ most amount of points scored against a Big Ten team in regulation this season.

The Terps closed out a conference team in regulation for the first time this season.

Maryland had just one win in seven tries against Big Ten opponents coming into the Friday night. The only victory over a Big Ten team came in double-overtime against Northwestern on Jan. 12, and even that win was more nerve-wracking than a typical nail-biter. The Terps blew a 72-66 lead with about 30 seconds left, only to go to two overtime periods to eventually seal their first conference win of the season.

But despite that win, second-half collapses to teams like Rutgers, Iowa, Wisconsin and even Illinois earlier in the season, have become the big reason as to why the Terps have failed to secure conference victories.

After going into halftime with a two-point lead, Maryland was neck-and-neck with the 17th-best team in the nation in the final 10 minutes of the game.

The Terps had the game tied at 51-51, but then Illinois rattled off four-straight points. It seemed like Maryland would have yet another tight game slip away from its grasp in the second half.

Inching back, the Terps continued to make a collective push. And eventually, they captured the lead and never surrendered. A layup from Ayala and a barrage of points from Scott put Maryland up 70-63 and Alfonso Plummer turned the ball over with a travel with 3:23 left in the game.

Maryland soon after extended its lead to double-digits and that would be it. In the final 2:12 of the contest, the Terps ripped off an 11-0 run to deliver an upset. A big part of that effort was Donta Scott, who added 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the second half. He finished with a career-high 25 points on a 75% shooting performance.

“I thought Donta was terrific,” Manning said. “He was scoring the basketball and getting to his spot. Across the board, we got contributions from everyone in some way, shape, or fashion. This was a terrific team win.”

The ability for the Terps to hold onto a late lead was likely a refreshing sight for Manning as he oversees the program the rest of the way. Maryland will need to replicate late-game performance like this one if it wants to climb itself out of the Big Ten’s basement.

“I feel like last game we fell real short and guys just stepped up to the plate and did the things that maybe they weren’t doing last game,” Scott said. “So I’m really happy and I really appreciate the guys, all of them for just being here and just stepping up to the plate.”

Maryland’s fate shifted with Kofi Cockburn out of the lineup the second time around.

Earlier on Friday, Illinois’ star center Kofi Cockburn was said to have had been in concussion protocol after getting hurt in the game against Purdue. With his status up in the air and eventually being ruled out, the advantage immediately went to Maryland.

The elite big man torched the Terps when he was on the floor in the first meeting between these two programs. In Illinois’ 12-point home win back on Jan. 6, Cockburn played only eight minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and scored seven points. The second half was when Cockburn exploded against a listless interior defense from Maryland. He added 16 points and 15 boards in the final 20 minutes, helping the Fighting Illini to a win.

Cockburn coming out of the lineup meant that a lot more areas that should’ve opened up for the Terps on the court, both offensively and defensively. Cockburn’s presence is undeniable on either end on any given night and it was expected that Maryland had a much greater chance of success against a shorthanded Illini squad.

The Terps’ offense had one of its more efficient offensive performances in the first half, totaling 20 points in the paint after 20 minutes of action and taking a lead into halftime. The Terps only committed six turnovers as well by the break and looked like a much different team than the one that limped out of Ann Arbor a few days ago.

Maryland eventually bursted free in the second half to capture the upset win to give it its second conference win of the season.

But not only did it look like a much different team than last game, but Maryland’s top-two bigs performed well after failing to provide much in the first meeting between the Terps and the Fighting Illini.

In the first matchup, center Qudus Wahab and freshman forward Julian Reese both fouled out mostly because of the size that Cockburn provides inside. But this time around with no Cockburn on the floor, Maryland’s big men had quite the resurgence offensively after a bunch of quiet games in January.

Reese and Wahab roamed free in the paint without the lurking presence of Cockburn and they combined for 18 points. Reese may have played 23 minutes, but Wahab finished with 11 points compared to the freshman’s seven.

“It gives him a lot of confidence,” Scott said about what Wahab’s performance can do for his mindset moving forward. “We try to instill a lot of confidence in him at practice.”

A lack of a major paint presence allowed Maryland to reign supreme in the paint all evening, and the star center’s absence ultimately was a big reason as to why it pulled off the upset win.