Maryland men’s basketball continues to pick up crucial wins down the stretch of the season, pulling off the sweep of Nebraska in back-to-back games to move to 13-10 and 7-9 in Big Ten play.
The Terps struggled in their first contest with the Cornhuskers on Tuesday, committing a season-high 17 turnovers but still managing to pull out a 64-50 win. Wednesday night’s win was far more convincing, with the team scoring the most points it has in a Big Ten game this season in a 79-71 beatdown.
The pair of wins were must-haves for Maryland, as it continues to position itself for to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The victories
Here are my biggest takeaways.
Aaron Wiggins was unstoppable
On Feb. 5, Aaron Wiggins endured one of his worst games of the season. In a road game at Penn State, the junior guard shot 1-for-11 and scored a season-low two points in a devastating loss for the Terps.
Since then, he’s been on fire.
He scored 17 points in each of his next two games, setting him up for two of his best performances of the season against Nebraska.
“We’ve changed our offense a little bit, which gives him more freedom,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s playing with confidence, which is good to see.”
In the first game, Wiggins struggled to get his three-point shot to fall, but he still managed to score in bunches. With the game tied at 44-44, Wiggins crossed over his defender and drove toward the rim with his left hand. He absorbed the contact and finished with his right hand off the glass for the and-one score.
A possession later, he grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed three-pointer inside the paint, immediately went behind his back and attacked at the rim, scoring again to give his team a bit of breathing room and a five-point lead.
Those two scores inspired a 15 point second half for Wiggins, who scored a game-high 21 points to lead the Terps to the first win Tuesday.
On Wednesday, though, he was locked in for the jump. He buried his first three-point attempt of the night before attacking a closeout and sinking a midrange jumper to give him five quick points.
He went on to connect on three of his first five attempts from deep, scoring 13 first half points on the evening to help the Terps surge to a 40-33 halftime lead. He added another triple in the second half, scoring 22 points on the night and again looking like one of the most complete offensive players on the floor. He shot 9-of-18 (50%) from the floor, and buried four of his nine three-point attempts to go along with five rebounds and three assists.
“[I’m] just being confident, taking the open shot that I have,” Wiggins said. “The first couple shots the last couple games, they’ve been open. So just shooting it confident and trusting that the shots that I work on will fall.”
Maryland’s offensive inconsistency this season has often been what has set it back most in games this season, but being able to rely on Wiggins to score like he has lately could make the difference for the Terps’ resurgent run to the postseason.
Jairus Hamilton provided a big boost
The Boston College transfer’s first season with the Terps has been inconsistent to say the least, but that certainly wasn’t the case over the last two games.
Hamilton came off the bench in each of Maryland’s games against Nebraska, often sliding into a similar role to that of Donta Scott whenever he was on the floor. He had averaged X points per game through conference play up until that points, but despite such struggles, Hamilton came out firing against the Cornhuskers.
The junior forward looked decisive whenever he got the ball, showing no hesitation in pulling the trigger from beyond the arc when given space. He buried four of his first five triples in Maryland’s Tuesday night tilt, notching 11 first half points in his first double-digit scoring outing since Jan. 19 — he ended with 15 points, tied for his career high.
But Hamilton also showed that he’s capable of much more offensively than just being a spot-up shooter.
With eight minutes left in the first half on Tuesday, Hamilton caught a pass on the wing in transition with room to shoot. As his defender closed out hard, Hamilton pumped, drove, and patiently finished at the rim for two, showing off his ability to capably put the ball on the floor.
“I was just feeling really confident,” Hamilton said following the performance. “This was a game where I had a lot of opportunities coming in, and so I just really just wanted to take advantage opportunities.”
Hamilton doubled down on that in the next game, with a bad pass by Nebraska’s Teddy Allen early in the second half setting up a fast break opportunity for the 6-foot-8 forward. Hamilton ran down the loose ball, took two dribbles and gathered toward rim, hanging in the air for the finger roll finish plus the foul.
“He’s a spark coming off the bench,” Wiggins said. “His ability to make shots, to hit threes, you know, he stretches out the defense because [with] our small ball lineup, they have to play their four or their five men to guard him. So it kind of opens up lanes when he gets in and he’s able to kind of space the floor and give us a little bit more to work with. So he’s big for us.”
Hamilton’s impressive display of offensive versatility was crucial for Maryland, providing the bench boost this year’s team has sorely lacked.
The team showed no signs of fatigue
There was plenty of speculation as to how Maryland would fare over its upcoming stretch of games, with the team scheduled to play three in just four days.
But ultimately it was Nebraska that ran out of gas, as the Terps never showed any signs of fatigue from their tightly condensed schedule.
Turgeon has relied heavily on his starters for most of this season, with the trio of Wiggins, Eric Ayala and Darryl Morsell often playing upwards of 35 minutes per game for the Terps. But Turgeon made a few adjustments in order to keep his top players’ minutes down, giving guys like Reese Mona and Hamilton some extended runs to let his go-to guards get extra rest on the bench.
“We did a better job of subbing,” Turgeon said on Tuesday. “Jairus really helped us ... Reese we’re getting confidence in and Reese had some really good minutes in the first half.”
Wiggins, Ayala and Morsell each still ended up playing at least 33 minutes, but the team did a strong enough job of keeping the Cornhuskers in check late in game to prevent them from having to play upwards of 37 or 38 minutes.
“The coaches, the trainers and [Director of Basketball Performance Kyle Tarp] do a great job of keeping us prepared,” Ayala said. “It’s really the little things that help us play in back-to-back games that we can translate into both wins.”
Maryland’s reliance on its starting lineup likely isn’t going away any time soon, but the team’s ability to bring the same level of energy and intensity to the floor on short days rest will be important. The Big Ten tournament, which begins in less than a month, will be a physically demanding task for the Terps, considering they’re currently ninth in the conference standings, which would mean they won’t receive a bye.
This year’s NCAA Tournament schedule will likely be just as tightly condensed, so maintaining a high level of conditioning will prove crucial in the coming weeks.