For the first time since early January, No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball lost its second-straight game Tuesday, falling 78-67 to Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey.
With the loss — along with No. 16 Michigan State pulling out a victory over No. 20 Penn State Tuesday night — the Terps are tied with the Spartans for first place in the Big Ten standings with one game remaining.
Here’s what we took away from Maryland’s defeat.
1. Slow starts have returned
At the beginning of the season, the Terps couldn’t get out to fast starts against lesser opponents. Though the team had completed its first five games with double-digit victories, it took an average of 17:53 to build a lead of five points or more.
But those slow starts have seemed to come back into Maryland’s play the last few games, and it has cost it.
Against then-No. 24 Michigan State this past weekend, the Terps allowed their opponent to jump out to a 17-5 lead — one they could not overcome.
In Tuesday’s matchup at the RAC, a similar occurrence took place as Rutgers put together a 19-8 lead within the first 11 minutes of the game. During that span, the Scarlet Knights went 8-of-16 from the floor, while the Terps only converted six of their first 18 shots.
“You know, we always start this way and lose,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “[Rutgers] was terrific — there’s a reason they’re 18-1 in this building. ... They seemed fresh and loose and having fun. I think they had [five] days to prepare for this one and it looked that way.”
But Maryland’s problem wasn’t the fact that it was just missing shots. Turgeon’s squad, which finished with nine turnovers in the matchup, gave the ball away a total of five times during the first 11 minutes, leading to 10 Scarlet Knight points.
Rutgers guard Jacob Young, who did not appear in the first meeting between these two teams, made his impact immediate. Young — a sub-par shooter at 24 percent from beyond the arc prior to Tuesday night — had 11 of his team’s first 17 points, including a 3-for-3 performance from deep.
With just over 17 minutes remaining in the first half, Anthony Cowan Jr. hit a three-pointer — his first since Feb. 18 — giving Maryland a 4-2 advantage. The Terps led for 52 seconds —their only lead of the game — before Rutgers regained control of the game with a 7-0 run.
“Teams are going [to have] runs on us, and we’ve got to be able to go through the runs,” Cowan said. “[This was] another where the team kind of went on a run and we didn’t respond.”
Whether it is fatigue or a number of other reasons, Maryland has not played well from the tip, forcing it to play from behind and try to make a miracle happen every game. But in the past two contests, the Terps early struggles have prevented them from capturing a share of the Big Ten regular season title.
2. Serrel Smith Jr. and Hakim Hart had opposite performances
In a game like Tuesday’s, it is hard to take away positives from the Terps’ perspective.
But Serrel Smith Jr.’s 11 minutes — the most he’s had since Iowa on Jan. 30 — were pretty productive. The sophomore finished with just six points on 2-of-6 shooting and four rebounds, but he did a lot good things that aren’t going to show up on the stat sheet.
With eight minutes remaining in the first half, Smith Jr. grabbed a defensive rebound and stormed down the court, where he missed a wild shot but drew a technical foul on Ron Harper Jr., giving the Terps two points off free throws and possession — though they able to cash in on it.
Nearly four minutes later, the sophomore from Florida recorded a monster block to keep the game at three points, but the Terps were unable to take advantage of it and gave up another 7-0 run in less than two minutes.
Smith Jr. was once one of the first guys off the bench and a pivotal role player. But, more recently, Turgeon has elected to go with freshman Hakim Hart instead of Smith Jr. In the past three games, the freshman has averaged 10.33 minutes and averaged 2.33 points per game.
When paired with Aaron Wiggins, Jalen Smith and other Terps, Hart boots Maryland’s length that has caused issues for opponents. But while Smith had a productive showing Tuesday, Hart struggled. He went 0-for-5 from the field and 0-for-4 from deep and gathered no rebounds in 13 minutes. He also looked a bit out of control on a few possessions.
With 3:27 remaining in the first half, Cowan threw the ball out to Hart, who pump faked and drove to the hole. But when a Scarlet Knight defender reached for the ball, Hart forced a floater up that hit nothing but backboard, leading to a Rutgers score at the other end.
Anthony Cowan Jr. puts an end to the 7-0 Rutgers run. pic.twitter.com/d1hbj7xVF4— Cody Wilcox (@Cody_Wilcox15) March 4, 2020
Though Smith Jr. entered the game nearly five minutes after Hart, the sophomore played with a lot more energy and gave his team a boost at times. He finished with a plus/ minus of plus-5, while Hart closed the game with a minus-2.
“[Serrel played very hard, gave us some great minutes,” Cowan said. “Super happy to be able to see him contribute.”
3. Maryland didn’t really have an inside presence
For the third time in four games, including Ohio State and Michigan State, the Terps were beat on the boards by Rutgers, 42-37.
While Smith notched his 20th double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds, the rest of the team had troubles winning any battles on the glass. The next leading rebounder on Maryland was Eric Ayala, who finished with five boards. Freshman Donta Scott — Smith’s front court partner — only grabbed a single board.
The Scarlet Knights, on the other hand, received a combined 23 boards from Akwasi Yeboah (8), Myles Johnson (8) and Harper (7).
“We just have to start attacking the boards a lot more,” Smith said. “We’ve lost that mentality ... and we’ve just got to figure out a way to start boxing out more and just grabbing them — offensively and defensively.”
Along with its advantage in the rebounding margin, Rutgers also outscored Maryland in the paint, scoring 42 points as opposed to the Terps’ 32. But part of that had to do with Maryland’s desire to live from beyond the arc tonight — 32 of its 65 shots came from outside.
“We missed a lot of wide open threes. Let’s be real, ok — wide open,” Turgon said. “Now we’ve got to get more offensive rebounds. And if not, then we have to run our tails back and be better on transition.”