Maryland men’s basketball entered Saturday facing a desperate Penn State squad that was reeling from three consecutive losses, putting its postseason hopes in jeopardy. The Terps, on the other hand, had every reason to be comfortable despite dropping their last game, as they were the only team in the Big Ten still unbeaten in home conference games and found themselves mostly playing for postseason seeding rather than fate.
For most of Saturday’s contest, Penn State looked like the more desperate team, keeping itself in the game with clutch shots to answer every threat Maryland made to extend its lead. Eventually, though, the Terps garnered some distance between them and the Nittany Lions, pulling away for a 74-68 win.
Maryland (17-8, 8-6 Big Ten), even when holding an advantage on paper, has struggled with the Nittany Lions (14-11, 5-9) in recent years. The Terps had lost four straight against them before last year’s win and were in jeopardy of meeting a similar fate Saturday, but were lifted to victory by a 23-point showing — 15 of which came in the second half — from senior guard Hakim Hart, the most he’s ever scored in a Big Ten game. Hart made eight of his 10 field goal attempts, adding five rebounds and four assists.
“Hakim’s like the heart of the team. I mean, he does all of the little stuff, especially defensively, so to see him get going like that on offense, really just trying to get him the ball and let him work,” graduate guard Jahmir Young said. “He was on tonight and we was all feeding off of him, so him just bringing us home tonight was special.”
“Just being a leader on this team means a lot to me because I’ve been here for four years and I just want to do great things and win championships,” Hart added.
Young also had a big second half, chipping in 18 total points himself.
The Nittany Lions stuck around due to their lights-out three-point shooting, knocking down 12 of their 26 attempts from beyond the arc. Freshman guard Kanye Clary and fifth-year guard Jalen Pickett each had 15 points for Penn State, while fifth-year guard Andrew Funk, who hit a game-high four triples, had 14.
It was a slow offensive start for both teams, with defense ruling for the majority of the first half. The Terps eventually managed to wear Penn State’s defense down, but the Nittany Lions struggled to do the same to their opponent. They started 1-for-10 from the field, not reaching the 10-point threshold until over 13 and a half minutes had elapsed.
Using an 8-0 run, Maryland leapt out to a 12-point lead midway through the half, looking like it had figured out a winning formula. Most of its offensive success came from its ability to make Penn State uncomfortable, forcing 10 first-half turnovers and turning that into 10 points, compared to the Nittany Lions’ two points off turnovers. Maryland ended with 17 points off turnovers.
“That hurt us, but it also, sometimes that’s their best offense,” Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry said of his team’s turnover issues. “We gave them too many run-outs, too many pick-sixes, getting layups, getting in transition, getting fouls, whatever it may be.”
That script was flipped on its head as the half wound down, with Penn State catching fire and battling back to tie the score. The Nittany Lions made eight straight field goals — including three 3-pointers — to silence a sold-out XFINITY Center and storm their way back.
“We lost Funk on a slip and then we got mixed up in our zone one time and then [Myles] Dread went and made a three. I actually thought the defense was OK for pretty much most of the game. We were OK giving up twos against them,” Maryland head coach Kevin Willard said. “They’re gonna shoot a high percentage, that’s the way they play.”
Penn State’s late-half offensive success surprisingly came without much scoring from Pickett, a probable All-Big Ten player, who entered Saturday leading his team in scoring (17.3), rebounds (7.8) and assists (7.0) per game. Pickett, who was teammates with Maryland graduate guard Don Carey from 2018-20 at Siena, only managed four first-half points on just three attempts, still distributing the ball but taking a secondary role.
“Just trying to make it tough for him. Keep him out of the paint as much as possible,” Young said of his team’s gameplan for Pickett. “He got going a little bit, but for the majority of the game I feel like we did a good job on him.”
Almost as surprising were the first-half struggles of Young, who was held scoreless until just over a minute remained in the half. He did end up putting in five quick points at the end of the period to give Maryland a 31-28 lead entering the break, though, and exploded in the second half to help pace the Terps to a win.
The start of the second half was far different than the beginning of the first, with both teams coming out of the gates hot. Penn State got its first lead of the game after Pickett drained his second consecutive three less than two minutes in, but Maryland answered with a 9-0 run to push its lead to six.
The Nittany Lions unsurprisingly answered, swinging back every time the Terps threw a punch. Once the final minutes of the game arrived, though, Hart took over and led Maryland to a six-point triumph.
“I have a lot of confidence in him,” Willard said of Hart. “Depending on pick-and-roll coverage and post coverage, I can go either way with him and get him to use his height, his strength and he’s a very good passer when he’s down there.”
Saturday’s win marked Maryland’s 10th consecutive home Big Ten win dating back to last season. That streak will be put to the test after five days off, when No. 1 Purdue comes to College Park Thursday. The Terps lost by just three to the Boilermakers when they first met on Jan. 22 in West Lafayette.
“This building rocks, man. It’s, you know, it’s really, really helped us. ... Our building is loud. It’s a great home court. You need it in this league because winning on the road in this conference is unlike anything I’ve experienced,” Willard said.
Three things to know
1. Defending the three. Maryland entered Saturday with the fourth-best three-point defense in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.com, but Penn State made it look easy from long range. The Nittany Lions wouldn’t have been able to stay close if it wasn’t for their shooting, but a team that has been one of the best three-point shooting teams in the conference showcased their shooting ability Saturday.
2. Hakim Hart was the X-factor. Hart was the best player on the floor, having his way with the Nittany Lions and putting in a career conference game-best 23 points. Willard has on multiple occasions referred to Hart as his most important player, and that was on display against Penn State, as he led his team to victory, mobbed in celebration by his teammates shortly after.
3. Maryland’s home dominance continued. While there was plenty of tension in XFINITY Center when the score stayed close, Maryland fed off its home crowd once again and continued its winning ways in College Park. The Terps moved to 7-0 at home in conference games this season and will look to keep that going against Purdue in less than a week.