With No. 12 Maryland men’s basketball holding onto a seven-point lead and 9:39 remaining against No. 11 Ohio State, Anthony Cowan Jr. lobbed a pass to a wide-open Donta Scott at the free-throw line. Scott, who was in the teeth of the Buckeyes 2-3 zone defense, turned and faced the basket before bulleting a pass to Jalen Smith under the hoop.
The sophomore made Ohio State pay for the slow defensive rotation and slammed a two-handed jam home that electrified the Xfinity Center faithful.
Scott backpedaled down the court and pointed up to Smith with his left arm.
“He made me dap him up after,” Smith said with a laugh. “So I have to prop him on that one.”
Against Ohio State and Indiana this past week, the duo has provided the Terps with some much-needed physicality and toughness in the paint.
“I always knew Donta was tough,” Smith said. “I watched him in high school and the way he plays — it just mimics that hard work type player. And every since he got into college, he just plays that role, and he’s been one of the toughest people on our team.”
Near the eight-minute mark of the second half of Tuesday’s game against the Buckeyes, Scott once again caught a pass in the middle of the zone and took the 6’9, 270-pound Kaleb Wesson to the rack. Taking two hard dribbles with his right hand, the freshman showed he wasn’t afraid of Ohio State’s best player, absorbed the contact and finished a right-handed floater.
His bucket added to Maryland’s 22 points in the paint in the second half against Ohio State, after the team only had two points from the same area of the floor at halftime. He finished with seven points and five rebounds.
“He’s just always trying to please as a player, so I think he’s just getting started. I think these two games have been terrific,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “He made a tough shot against Wesson when Wesson tackled him and there wasn’t a foul call. ... He’s physically tough and he’s mentally tougher, and he’s really helping us.”
Over the past two games, Smith and Scott have combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds.
Two of Scott’s points came just under the nine-minute mark against Indiana. While the Hoosiers were in transition, Scott reached his hand in the passing lane and forced the ball to take two bounces towards the top of the key.
Cowan scooped the ball up and pushed a fast break the other way. After taking three dribbles down the court and drawing two Indiana defenders, the senior guard found a sprinting Scott, who jumped off two feet and finished the sequence with a one-handed flush.
While he didn’t grab any rebounds, Scott ended the game with nine points, one assist and one steal, while Smith had 19 points and eight boards.
But the wins against Indiana and Ohio State can be credited to Maryland’s defensive pressure. The Terps forced each team into 14 turnovers and held both the Hoosiers and Buckeyes to under 60 points — the seventh and eighth times they have done so, respectively.
Entering Saturday’s matchup, Indiana was averaging 38.5 of its points in the paint. But the Terps limited the Hoosiers to just 22 points there when the two teams faced, a season-low for the visiting squad. Maryland also held Trayce Jackson-Davis, who was averaging 15.4 points and 8.7 boards prior, to just seven points and five rebounds.
Throughout the majority of nonconference play, Turgeon tinkered with lineups and appeared to not have a rotation. Scott, who said he spent the majority of time playing point guard at Imhotep Institute Charter High School in Philadelphia, was seeing scattered time at small forward and power forward. He only started one game — against Fairfield on Nov. 19 — and gave way to either guard Eric Ayala or center Makhi Mitchell in the others.
In each of the past four games, though, Scott has started alongside Smith, Cowan, Darryl Morsell and Aaron Wiggins. And since Makhi and Makhel Mitchell entered the transfer portal Dec. 27, raising questions concerning the Terps’ physicality and frontcourt depth, Scott has upped his game. In three outings, Scott has averaged 24.3 minutes per game, including a season-high 33 minutes against the Buckeyes.
Big Ten play will bring some bigger bodies into the paint against Scott, but the freshman does not appear to be fazed by that.
“They bleed just the way I bleed,” Scott said prior to Ohio State.
His frontcourt partner in Smith has been a stable part of Turgeon’s opening lineup, starting every game this season. During certain times throughout nonconference play, Smith has appeared to shy away from contact.
But as the competition has become more physical, so has Smith. With just over nine minutes remaining against Indiana on Jan. 4, Smith corralled an offensive rebound over two Hoosiers, took one dribble and finished through contact for the and-one. The sophomore then showed off his additional muscle by flexing under the basket as Scott gave him a slight chest bump.
Smith has been great on the offensive end, averaging 15 points on 53 percent shooting the past two games, but has especially impressed his teammates with his defense.
Nearly four minutes into the Terps’ matchup with the Buckeyes, Wesson executed a drop-step that gave him a perfect angle to the basket for an easy floater. But Smith reached out his lengthy left arm and blocked the junior’s shot — one of his two blocks on the night.
Though Wesson finished with 15 points on 5-of-13 shooting, Smith — who Turgeon mentioned was guarding guards and planning to play at the four position all summer — and Co. made it very difficult for him to get any sort of rhythm throughout the game. Wesson only had five points on 2-of-8 shooting at halftime. Still, after the game, the sophomore only gave himself a grade of a C+/B- on guarding him, eager to improve even more.
“I think Stix is getting a lot stronger, a lot tougher,” Ayala said. “He kind of knew this game was going to be tough, playing against [Wesson]. It was good to see him battle.”
Going forward, Scott and Smith will most likely be undersized as Maryland continues conference play against bigger and stronger opponents. And more physical battles are ahead for them, but the Terps’ two frontcourt starters have proven themselves in the first two games of 2020.