Down by one with 15 minutes to play, Jalen Smith leaped high to block Rutgers forward Akwasi Yeboah’s shot at the rim with his left hand. After securing the loose ball, he trailed Anthony Cowan Jr. in a sprint down the court, catching a pass at the top of the key and sinking a triple to give the No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball its first lead in nearly 15 minutes.
On the next possession, Smith raced across the length of the hardwood once again. This time, he caught an Eric Ayala pass in transition at the free-throw line before flying high for a ferocious dunk through the contact for an and-one finish to give Maryland a 34-29 lead.
The Terps built a lead from there, but let it go late. And ahead by just one with less than a minute to go, Smith came through once again in a big spot. Caleb McConnell drove to the rim to potentially put the Scarlet Knights ahead, but Smith flew in for a dominant block — his sixth of the game, a career-high — and they didn’t score for the remainder of the game.
Smith’s play early in the second half got the Terps over the hump, and his late defensive stop clinched their 56-51 victory Tuesday night.
“Stix was Stix. It felt like he was getting every rebound out there and blocking shots,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “You had Stix’s three and then you had Stix’s dunk, and that energizes [us] no matter who’s doing it.”
For the fifth game in a row, Smith recorded a double-double, dominating all night long in Maryland’s fifth straight victory. He’s averaged 20.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks during the stretch.
On the first possession of the game, he recorded a steal before hitting a triple from the top of the arc on the other end. Less than 90 seconds later, he hit another three from nearly the same exact spot, extending the Terps’ lead to 6-2 early.
With 15:35 left in the half, Darryl Morsell drove to the left side of the rim before throwing up a contested layup. His shot missed off the front edge of the rim, but Smith suddenly came soaring in to throw down a two-handed putback slam and get the crowd going. While the rest of the team was missing shots, Smith was scoring at will.
But as good as the sophomore big was, his performance alone couldn’t keep the Terps ahead as the half progressed. When he checked out of the game at the 12:49 mark, his team held a 14-6 lead and was firing on all cylinders.
Almost immediately, the game script flipped completely. With Chol Marial — playing his first action in four games — at center, Rutgers instantly went on a 7-0 run. And less than two minutes later, the Scarlet Knights took their first lead of the game at the 9:03 mark, one they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the half.
For the final nine-plus minutes of the opening period of play, the Terps didn’t make a single field goal. Aside from a pair of Cowan free throws, they were held scoreless altogether, allowing their early eight-point lead to evaporate.
“First half [we] only scored 20 points. That’s terrible. That’s real bad,” Morsell said. “Nobody was making anything. Jalen made some shots early, but after that, we kind of [were] just sluggish.”
But while the Terps offense was a shambles, Rutgers didn’t take as much of an advantage as it could have. After a Harper jumper gave the Scarlet Knights a 25-18 lead with 5:26 to go in the first half, they didn’t score until after the break, at which point Maryland was somehow only down 25-20.
“It was a huge win for us,” Smith said of only being down five at the break. “We shot like 24 percent in the first half, but we were still down five. That gave us a lot more energy just to come back and work, continue to play our game.”
That allowed Maryland to stay in the game even when it wasn’t playing well, which proved crucial. The offense wasn’t going to be kept in check forever, and when the time was right, it opened up and thrived.
With 17:05 left in the game and the Terps down 27-22, Cowan drove to the free-throw line before dumping a pass off to Morsell on the left wing of the three-point arc. The junior took the ball and gunned towards the middle of the paint, taking off from the B1G logo and electrifying the crowd with a two-handed jam.
Morsell scored six straight points for Maryland in a two-minute span, following up his slam dunk with a fastbreak layup on the following offensive possession. And after Cowan missed a layup, he flew in for a putback dunk to cut the deficit to just one point before Smith finally pushed the team ahead.
“Everybody challenged him at halftime,” Cowan said of Morsell. “He came out and he gave us everything he had. He started off with the big dunk and I think that’s what got him going. That’s all we need from him.”
After Cowan drilled a three with 5:33 to go, the Terps had a 47-39 lead and seemed unstoppable. But the Scarlet Knights weren’t going down without a fight, as a quick eight-point burst tied the score in the blink of an eye.
While Maryland didn’t make a field goal over the final five-plus minutes, the team iced the game at the charity stripe. Cowan and Morsell scored nine straight points — all at the free-throw line — to close out the win and keep the Terps undefeated at home.
Three things to know
1. The Terps didn’t shoot well, but it didn’t matter. Including the seven-plus minute scoring drought near the end of the first half, Maryland had one of its worst shooting nights in recent memory. The Terps finished just 34.0 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from deep as their defense kept them going. A lot of the shooting struggles were countered by good ball control, as Maryland once again finished below its season average in turnovers.
2. Chol Marial played but was a net negative. For the first time since the game against Purdue Jan. 18, the South Sudan native checked into action. But his appearance didn’t last long, as he was immediately taken advantage of down low on both ends of the court. In just over two minutes of action, Marial missed a layup and was scored on at the rack, and he finished a minus-seven on the night.
3. Ron Harper Jr. was held in check. Entering Tuesday’s game, the forward was averaging 11.6 points on the season and served as the Scarlet Knight’s most dangerous scorer for the Terps to contain. They did just that, limiting him to just six points on 3-of-9 shooting — missing all three triples — and forcing Rutgers to look to other scoring options.