CHICAGO — With an inferior foe in last-place Minnesota on the horizon, No. 6-seed Maryland men’s basketball needed to take care of business.
After all, Maryland was a Big Ten Tournament-high 13-point favorite against the Golden Gophers, the fifth-lowest rated power conference team in KenPom.com’s rankings.
Heading into the second half with a seven-point advantage, Maryland swiftly built its lead to 12. Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson called a timeout with 17:38 remaining, but it just delayed the inevitable.
Immediately after the break, graduate guard Don Carey drilled his third three to give Maryland a game-high 43-28 lead.
At that point, the result was in the rear-view mirror. Minnesota chipped the deficit to single digits on multiple occasions but never threatened in a 70-54 Maryland victory. With the triumph, the Terps advanced to a Friday night quarterfinal matchup with No. 3-seed Indiana.
“I think the last couple days, I’ve just — we’ve had a lot of fun in practice,” Maryland head coach Kevin Willard said. “We watched film for a little bit on Penn State, and then we had two good days where it kind of — we just had fun in practice. I just wanted these guys to be a little bit loose coming into this week, going into next week. I want them to enjoy it. I didn’t want them — I can handle the pressure — I want them to enjoy this moment.”
Maryland eviscerated Minnesota in the team’s first meeting in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 81-46. While that result stands as the Terps’ lone conference road win of the season, they had no problems putting away the Golden Gophers in College Park on Feb. 22, 88-70. Minnesota’s upset win over No. 11-seed Nebraska on Wednesday set up a rubber match — and probably a better matchup for Maryland than the surging Cornhuskers.
A major downfall in Maryland’s excruciating one-point road loss at Penn State last Sunday was the play of senior forward Donta Scott. Scott scored just one point and missed each of his five shots, but he powered the Terps to an 8-2 lead against Minnesota with five quick points Thursday.
Minnesota was pesky early, using an 8-0 run to take the lead, but Maryland’s defensive pressure was a factor. The Terps forced eight first-half turnovers, including two 10-second violations.
“I just don’t think we had the pop that we needed to to break it, and I thought we kind of made it a little bit harder than it needed to be,” Johnson said of Maryland’s press. “Some of it, obviously, is on us and Maryland, like I said, they do a good job. But we just didn’t have that pop, that juice.”
With both sophomore forward Julian Reese and graduate forward Patrick Emilien in foul trouble and Jahmir Young held scoreless until 1:14 remaining in the half, it was a sluggish start for Maryland against an inferior foe. But Scott was throwing flames in the first half, finishing the frame with 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
The Terps shot a brisk 37.9% from the field in the first half, but six triples, their press and Scott’s scoring gave them a 31-24 halftime lead.
Maryland came out with urgency in the second half, building its lead to 12 before Minnesota’s aforementioned timeout and extending it thereafter.
Carey, while not in a starring role, has contributed steady and winning basketball lately. He finished with three made 3-pointers, 11 points — his fifth straight game in double digits — and three assists. Criticized plenty for not matching his reputation as a 3-point sniper, Carey is playing his best basketball when it matters most.
“I think the main thing is just being shot-ready and being ready to shoot the ball all times when my teammates find me,” Carey said.
Minnesota made it an eight-point game with about 12 minutes left, and the lack of production from Young was a noticeable gap in the Terps’ performance. He struggled to finish around the rim, ending up with 15 points on 3-of-13 shooting. As a team, the Terps were just 10-of-21 on layup attempts.
“I didn’t feel like we did a pretty good job upon him the first two games with ball screen coverage,” Johnson said about Young. “So that was one of the things that we wanted to emphasize, is not let him downhill and feel comfortable to kind of be more at the level and make a play in the crowd, and hopefully our size would maybe cause some issues for him.”
The Golden Gophers shot a decent percentage (43.5%) to keep the game from becoming a total blowout. Minnesota’s 15 turnovers, though, came in waves, and its inability to string together stops inhibited it from bringing the game within two possessions in the second half; Maryland shot 48% in the second half.
Young came alive late, scoring eight of his 15 points in the final five minutes, giving the Terps enough of a boost to seal the deal.
Three things to know
1. Donta Scott had a necessary bounce-back showing. If Scott — or fellow senior Hakim Hart — were to give the Terps a bit more against the Nittany Lions to end the regular season, Maryland likely would have been the second seed in the conference tournament. Instead the Terps played Thursday, and Scott was necessary in keeping their heads above water in the first half. Though his play dissipated in the second half, Scott’s 16 first-half points were key in allowing the Terps to gain control, especially with a rare off night from Young. Scott finished the night with 20 points.
“My teammates really found me early on and they all had faith in my shot, just like Coach [Willard] had faith in my shot,” Scott said. “Even though it hasn’t been falling, they told me to keep shooting. I felt like I got hot early on, and they just found a way to find me.”
2. Maryland did what was expected of it. Thursday’s game fell under the “can’t-lose” distinction for the Terps, as it would have been a disastrous quadrant-four loss. Maryland would be headed to the NCAA Tournament regardless of its result in a third game against Minnesota, but there was no need for it to play with its food and risk dropping a seed line. Maryland’s postseason resume, which features no losses outside the top two quadrants, is secure and can only get better.
3. On to Indiana. Though the Terps didn’t secure the double-bye, Minnesota presented the best-case scenario for a Thursday matchup. Attention now turns to a rematch with Trayce Jackson-Davis and Indiana with a spot in the semifinals on the line. Maryland soundly defeated the Hoosiers in College Park on Jan. 31, 66-55.
When asked if he had any initial thoughts of the matchup with Indiana, Willard gave a simple answer: “No.”