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Maryland basketball suffered its worst loss of the season at a terrible time

The Terps fell by double-digits to Illinois, and now they’ve got a daunting Big Ten slate ahead.

Maryland basketball Mark Turgeon vs Wisconsin

NEW YORK — On Saturday at Madison Square Garden, Maryland basketball faced an Illinois team that entered just 5-14 this season and 1-7 in Big Ten play. The Illini have some talent, with three promising underclassmen leading the team in scoring, but the record clearly shows they’re not yet ready to jump into the Big Ten picture.

In a demanding Big Ten, this is the kind of game the Terps can’t lose. They did just that, letting an 11-point first-half lead turn into an 11-point loss.

For the first 15 minutes Saturday, No. 13 Maryland was in clear control. The Terps were shooting well, defending well and taking care of the ball. Then all of that fell apart. Maryland made just 10 of its last 28 shots, committed 15 turnovers in the second half and watched Illinois pull away down the stretch.

“We did some timely things—we missed layups, missed a one-and-one when it was a game, think we were up one,” head coach Mark Turgeon said after the loss. “We just weren’t very good when we needed to be good and they were. They were terrific when they needed to be.”

Maryland led by 11 at multiple points in the first half, most recently at the 4:30 mark. But as the Terps’ field goal drought slogged past five minutes, Illinois clawed back into the game, scoring nine straight points and cutting the margin to two. Maryland pushed its lead back up to four at halftime and eight to start the second half, but after an Illini three-point barrage gave them the lead, the Terps weren’t themselves for the rest of the game.

The turnover bug didn’t bite early, but it bit often. After Maryland had three giveaways in the first 16 minutes, it turned the ball over on three of four possessions to finish the half with six. The sloppiness continued for the rest of the afternoon, and Illinois turned opportunities into easy points. Just as No. 6 Michigan State did Monday, the Illini dominated Maryland in transition, scoring 23 fast-break points to the Terps’ six and leading 27-13 in points off turnovers.

“We weren’t very good, especially when the game was on the line tonight—turnovers,” Turgeon said. “I thought what really hurt us for the second game in a row was transition defense. There was a whole halftime speech and then we gave up three wide-open threes to start the second half. That gave them a lot of confidence.”

It’s been about as bad of a week as Maryland could have imagined after rising to a season-best No. 13 in the AP poll. The Terps fell by double digits at Michigan State, which happens. But to turn around five days later and lose to Illinois for some of the same reasons—namely, finishing halves poorly and getting dominated in transition—is demoralizing.

Winning six Big Ten games in the new year vaulted Maryland into third place in the conference, behind only the league’s two powerhouses from the state of Michigan. Saturday’s loss, coupled with Purdue continuing its hot stretch, drops the Terps to fourth. And it won’t get easier.

Maryland returns home Tuesday to play Northwestern, but after that, four of the next five games are on the road, and all of them are against dangerous teams. Wisconsin and Nebraska both gave the Terps a scare in College Park and will be even tougher in their own buildings. Purdue has a win over Maryland already. And the last two games in that stretch are at No. 5 Michigan and No. 19 Iowa.

The possibility of Maryland collapsing during that stretch looks much stronger now than it did before Saturday. It’s imperative for this young team to gather itself and hit the reset button. Returning home, even for just one game, should help. But as evidenced by Saturday’s result, nothing in the Big Ten can be taken for granted.

“We have to get back to who we are,” sophomore center Bruno Fernando said. “I think we have to get back to playing with that hunger that we started with this season. Just keep doing what we do—I think we have to keep playing Maryland basketball.”