Maryland took care of business against Minnesota in an 84-73 win in its last regular season home game and on senior night in College Park.
The Terps have looked like a revamped, energized team over the last couple of weeks. They have won four of their last five games with one game remaining on their schedule against Michigan State on Sunday. Then, the Terps will travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament next week.
The seniors were honored prior to the game with a brief ceremony. Guards Eric Ayala and Fatts Russell were honored in the ceremony and then put on a show once the ball was tipped.
Little defense was on display from both teams, particularly in the first half. Minnesota’s star Jamison Battle had a career day with 39 points on 14-for-31 shooting from the field.
However, down the stretch, it was senior guard Eric Ayala and junior guard Hakim Hart who drilled two massive threes to give Maryland a comfortable advantage.
Let’s get to some takeaways from the last home game of the regular season.
Maryland’s offense is clicking at the right time.
Maryland is playing its best basketball exactly when any team wants to be. While it is likely too little, too late for this Maryland team as they won't qualify for the NCAA Tournament unless they win the Big Ten conference tournament, they have completely turned a corner offensively in recent weeks.
It starts with the Terps’ backcourt. The potential was there all season for the duo of Russell and Ayala to be one of the best backcourts in the conference. They had some early-season struggles and inconsistent showings, but recently, they have carried the Terps with their scoring prowess and playmaking ability.
Russell, in particular, has been phenomenal. He is averaging 22.6 points on 45.5% shooting in his last six games.
Maryland’s three-point shooting has improved vastly, which is a factor in the offensive boost as well. But more than anything, it can be attributed to an increase in ball movement and pace of play.
The Terps have been playing at a faster pace and are getting contributions from all their big-minute players. While Ayala and Russell have led the charge, Donta Scott, Hakim Hart and Qudus Wahab have been solid as well.
It wasn't Maryland’s three-point shooting that led it to victory on Wednesday night. Rather, it was the Terps' dominance in the paint. Maryland outscored Minnesota 46-14 in points in the paint.
Wahab dominated inside when he was on the floor, finishing with 10 points in 15 minutes. Freshman Julian Reese also had an impressive showing, adding 12 points.
Balance is the key when Maryland’s offense is consistent. Against Minnesota, Maryland had five players finish in double figures.
“We dangerous man,” Ayala said. “I said it in our last postgame and I wouldn't want to play us.”
It would take a miracle for Maryland to go on an unprecedented Big Ten tournament run, but they are certainly a threat to any team in the conference. If the Terps' recent offensive momentum travels to Indianapolis, no team in the Big Ten will be thrilled to match up against Maryland, no matter the round.
Maryland’s poor defensive first half was better in the second half.
At halftime, Maryland only led by four because of its poor defensive performance. The Terps put up 41 points in the first half, which is usually good enough to gain a sizable advantage. But Maryland struggled defensively, allowing 37 first-half points. The Terps' troubles came against Minnesota’s three-point threats. The Gophers made seven of its first 10 3-point attempts and shot 46.7% from three through the opening 20 minutes.
For Maryland to pull away and win its second game in a row it was going to need to turn up the defensive intensity and defend the deep ball.
Minnesota star Jamison Battle was unconscious from long range all night and Maryland had no answer. Battle had 20 first half points and finished with a career high 39 for the game on 7-for-16 shooting from three-point land.
“He was on fire,” Russell said. “He was making some tough shots, overhands, over two people. All credit to him, he had a hell of a game today.”
Despite failing to contain Battle in either half, Maryland picked up its defensive energy in the latter half. With Hart and Scott making their presence felt, Minnesota started to go ice cold which allowed the Terps to go on multiple second-half runs and eventually pull away.
Minnesota shot 43% from the field and 46% from three in the first half and 36% from the field and 30% from three in the second half.
Maryland still gave up 36 points in the second half, but when it mattered most down the stretch it got the necessary stops to pull out the win.
Maryland has a good shot at avoiding the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
A few weeks ago, it seemed inevitable Maryland would play in the first round of the Big Ten tournament where the bottom four seeds in the conference meet. The top-10 teams in the conference get a first-round bye and automatically advance to the second round of the tournament.
For most of the season Maryland sat in the 12-13 range, but a late-season resurgence — winning four of its last five games — puts Maryland in 10th place in the conference with one game remaining.
If Maryland can secure a win against Michigan State in its last game of the season, it will surely lock up 10th place in the conference and a first round bye. If Maryland loses to Michigan State, it will come down to how Penn State finishes the season.
Penn State and Maryland are currently tied for 10th place, but the Terps have the edge because they beat the Nittany Lions in a head-to-head matchup. Penn State finishes its season with Illinois and Rutgers in the next few days, two games it is expected to lose.
If Penn State pulls off an upset, it will get the first-round bye. If not, it will go to Maryland.
While avoiding a first round game isn't everything — as the teams toward the bottom of the conference are usually an early exit anyway — it can give Maryland more rest as they look to shock the world and go on a miracle run in Indianapolis next week.
“We’re trying to get that bye game,” Russell said. “I know we’re close to it and we got to finish out strong... we've been talking about it because you know, five games in five days is very tough.”