With less than a minute remaining, Maryland men’s basketball was desperate for the crucial bucket it needed to pull off the road upset against No. 12 Illinois.
As the seconds ticked away, the Terps turned to its longest tenured player and senior leader in Darryl Morsell. After receiving the ball off a screen from Jairus Hamilton, Morsell jab-stepped and took Ayo Dosumnu to the rim. Fighting through the contact in mid-air, Morsell banked it in off the glass and in, putting Maryland ahead 64-61 with 33 seconds remaining.
Maryland held Illinois’ high-powered attack to just two points in the final 4:08 of the game, making timely plays on either end of the floor to pull of the upset on the road, 66-63.
Despite a 2-5 start to Big Ten play, head coach Mark Turgeon’s squad has now upset two top opponents, with then-No. 6 Wisconsin as the other. And the team also avoided falling below .500 with the win.
“We really battled tonight,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “They’re great basketball team and I think a team that could be a Final Four team. We just battled, and it felt like Maryland basketball out there.”
Though the Terps were double-digit underdogs coming into Sunday night’s contest, they came in even more short-handed than expected. It was announced prior to tipoff that junior guard Eric Ayala wouldn’t be playing due to a groin injury sustained against Iowa on Thursday, leaving Maryland without its leading scorer.
As a result, Turgeon opted to move junior guard Aaron Wiggins to point guard, pairing him with sophomore Hakim Hart and Morsell in the backcourt.
“It’s just a matter of everyone kind of stepping up into a different role,” Wiggins said. “When you lose someone like [Ayala], everybody has to step up to a certain degree, whether that be energy, whether that be guys on the bench, whether that means scoring on offense, rebounding or making plays.”
On the other side, led by its two stars in Dosunmu and forward Kofi Cockburn, Illinois attacked Maryland at its weakest point: the paint. The 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn immediately began to try to establish his presence on the low block, with the Terps countering with their biggest interior presence in senior 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward Galin Smith.
Smith proved to be no match in the early going, as Cockburn routinely got the ball in deep post positions and showed off some impressive touch around the rim, converting on three of his first four field goal attempts within the game’s opening four minutes of play.
The next man up tasked with making an impact inside the paint was sophomore forward Chol Marial. Marial looked to have been all but removed from the team’s rotation, playing just one minute against Indiana on Jan. 4 before not seeing the floor against Iowa.
However, Turgeon turned to Marial early in the first half, bringing him on the floor to provide a spark for the Terps. At the 13:51 mark, Illini forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili tried to back down Marial in the low post, but Sudanese big man stayed on his feet and forced the miss.
Coming down on the other end, Marial set up for a pick-and-pop with Jairus Hamilton, receiving the pass from beyond the arc and knocking it down without any hesitation, trimming Maryland’s deficit to 16-14 with 13:36 remaining in the half.
But both of the Terps were outmanned by Cockburn as the game continued, with the Illini center bullying his way to his spots to score a game-high 16 points in the first half.
With Ayala’s absence thinning a guard corps that was already extremely lacking in ball-handlers, Maryland had to rely on the freshman guard tandem of Marcus Dockery and Aquan Smart to pick up the slack.
Forced to rely on two inexperienced, young players to hold their own against a top opponent in a hostile environment, Dockery and Smart did all they could to keep their heads above water. Each were prone to the occasional mistake, whether that was drifting away from shooters on the defensive end or committing live-ball turnovers on the other.
Maryland went cold for a scoring drought of over three minutes midway through the first half, but the defense stepped up to force some equally poor shooting from Illinois before a layup from Smart put the Terps behind just 23-20 with a little over eight minutes left until halftime.
Despite keeping Dosunmu in check for much of the period (7 points on 2-11 shooting), Maryland’s first half was looking as if it was going to be punctuated with another scoreless run, this time lasting almost three minutes.
But with 10 seconds remaining, sophomore forward Donta Scott drifted outside the three-point line and quickly got off a catch-and-shoot jumper as time ran down. Scott buried the triple, scoring 11 points in his 18 minutes on the floor to put the Terps behind just 34-32 at the half.
But the true test of Maryland’s resolve in this was sure to come in the second half. Illinois has been the stereotypical ‘second-half team’ this season, most recently out-scoring Northwestern 53-13 in the last 20 minutes of its win on Thursday.
At the outset of the second half, however, Morsell decided it was time to begin hunting for his shot on the offensive end. Morsell opened the scoring for Maryland in the second frame, pulling up from mid-range and sinking it to get the Terps going quickly.
Two minutes later, he took freshman Illini guard Adam Miller into the post, spinning to his left for another jumper that found the bottom of the net. On the ensuing defensive possession, Morsell stayed step-for-step with Dosumnu on a drive to the rim and forced the miss.
Bringing the ball down the other end, Morsell dipped around a Galin Smith screen and again pulled up from the top of the key, sinking another jump-shot to put the Terps ahead 43-41 with 16:42 left in the half.
Morsell scored 11 points in the first six minutes of the half, helping Maryland start the second half shooting 77.8% from the floor to keep pace and keep hope for an upset alive.
“It was it was just a great game for him,” Wiggins said of Morsell’s performance. “He was was scoring the ball, he was his rebounding for us, making plays, and he was he was being a leader. So when he’s like that our team is at the peak of our play.”
But as the two teams remained neck-and-neck down the stretch, Illinois turned to its two stars when it needed them most. Dosumnu began to heat up in the second half, missing just one of his first six shots from the field to go up to 19 points by the 7:00 mark. Cockburn continued to get whatever he wanted down low as well, eclipsing 20 points with over six minutes to play as well.
“My job today was just make it as tough as possible for him and just win,” Morsell said.
Maryland’s offense again went cold at an inopportune time, this time going almost four minutes without a bucket as the game neared crunch-time. Still, Illinois’ offense yet again failed to take advantage of the cold spell, with Wiggins eventually putting it to an end with a pull-up jumper plus the foul to tie things up at 59-59 with 5:08 remaining.
Both teams continued their shooting struggles down the stretch, with the contest still up for taking as the minutes ticked down. After going scoreless for nearly four minutes, a missed shot by Morsell bounced right back into the senior’s hands, who quickly swung it to a wide open Hart outside the arc, who buried the triple to put Maryland up 62-61 with just 1:18 left.
Along with a subsequent bucket from Morsell, the Terps’ defense carried the team down the stretch, holding the Fighting Illini scoreless for four minutes before the final seconds.
“Coach Turgeon always talks about valuing possessions and how one or two possessions can change the game,” Morsell said. “And like late game you see, it’s a one point game, two point game. So us having that experience and just having confidence in one another knowing that we’ve been there and stuff like that is very important for sure.”
Three Things to Know
1. Maryland again responds in a big way. With its season in the balance, the Terps pulled off yet another improbable victory on the road against one of the top teams in the conference. Having upset Wisconsin in Madison less than a month ago, Maryland showed that it’s capable of beating anyone on any given night. Pulling off tonight’s win without Ayala no less, just how much Maryland can ride the momentum of Sunday’s win could turn the tide for its season.
“It shows you they’re not giving up,” Turgeon said of his players effort. “Our guys have a lot of pride. There’s a lot of guys in that locker room have won a lot of games, and it rubbed off on the other guys tonight.”
The team has now defeated two top-15 teams in the same season for the first time since was 2014-15, when it took down No. 13 Iowa State and No. 5 Wisconsin.
2. Maryland was dominated on the glass. Despite already giving up some size on the inside coming into Sunday’s game, Maryland compounded its problem by not effectively boxing out on both ends. Illinois out-rebounded Maryland 40-33, with Cockburn leading the way with a game-high 10 rebounds. The Illini also pulled down 13 offensive rebounds, contributing to six second chance points.
3. The Terps made the most of their opportunities at the free-throw line. Throughout this season, Maryland has struggled to force its opponents to foul at the rim and generate trips to the foul. And even when Maryland did get to the charity stripe, it only shot 67.8 percent as a team. But that wasn’t the case on Sunday night, as the Terps went 14-17 from the line, the most it’s scored there in five games.