Maryland men’s basketball capped off the weekend with a win on Sunday afternoon, defeating Rutgers, 68-59, on the road to move to 14-10 and further strengthen its NCAA Tournament case.
Both teams traded blows through the early going of Sunday’s contest, but the Terps eventually took their first lead at the 10:46 mark of the first half and never trailed again from that point on. Maryland’s win avenges the team’s home loss to the Scarlet Knights back on Dec. 14, handing Rutgers its fourth loss at The RAC this season.
Here are my biggest takeaways.
Maryland completes the perfect week
Flashback to one week ago and Maryland had just lost consecutive games to Penn State and No. 4 Ohio State, dropping to 10-10 on the season and 4-9 in the Big Ten.
Sitting near the bottom of the Big Ten and just one more loss away from dropping below .500 for the first time this season, the Terps finally flipped the switch right when they needed to.
“After we lost at Penn State, it was devastating to us,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We met and we decided we had to make a lot of changes. It wasn’t going to be easy, but we had to do it.”
Turgeon urged his team in their meetings following the Ohio State loss that the best was still yet to come and that they needed to believe in that notion that those better days would never arrive.
“He just kept saying, ‘The best is yet to come.’ And guys believed it,” Wiggins said. “You know, guys felt like we hadn’t had a great season up until that point, but we could still turn it around. So, guys really bought into it and felt as though the best was truly yet to come.”
The first step toward getting the season back on track was taking care of business against Minnesota, which the Terps did and then some. Maryland thoroughly outclassed the Gophers when they visited Xfinity Center last Sunday, jumping out to a 14-point lead within the game’s first ten minutes to cruise to a double-digit win and season-sweep of Minnesota.
The big win helped springboard the Terps to victories on consecutive days over Nebraska, with this Sunday’s contest against Rutgers setting the team up with the chance to win four games in seven days.
Facing the toughest opponent left on its regular season schedule, Maryland handled the Scarlet Knights in their own building, completing the perfect week and rescuing the team’s chances for postseason qualification.
“Yeah, it’s been extremely fun,” junior guard Aaron Wiggins said of the team’s last week. “We told ourselves we were going to start a streak and we were going to try to win as many games as we could the rest of the season, and guys believed it.”
Following its recent run of dominance, Maryland has risen from 12th to seventh in the Big Ten standings, with a realistic opportunity to finish above .500 before the Big Ten Tournament begins on March 13.
It was another defensive clinic by the Terps
It’s no secret that Maryland’s biggest strength this season has been its ability to defend at a high level.
But Sunday’s win was one of their better performances of the season, forcing the Scarlet Knights into mistakes and stunting any kind of rhythm they tried to develop.
After connecting on six of its first nine field goal attempts to take an early 14-10 lead, Rutgers went on to make just two of its next 14 shots, partially as a result of Turgeon turning to a 3-2 zone.
“We played with unbelievable toughness,” Turgeon said. “Our defense from beginning until about the 2-minute mark [of the second half] was terrific.”
At the heart of the defensive effort was senior guard Darryl Morsell, as he has been throughout this season and in recent years. Morsell began the game on Rutgers’ leading scorer in Ron Harper Jr., but soon was switched onto guard Jacob Young. Morsell locked down each of Rutgers’ talented scorers, seemingly winning the battle each time either of them challenged on Maryland’s end of the floor.
“[Darryl’s] just special like that,” Turgeon said. “He guards, he guards, he guards.”
Rutgers was held to just 20 points after 20 minutes, its lowest first half scoring total of the season.
Another aspect to Maryland’s defensive dominance was its propensity to force the Scarlet Knights into mistakes. With 4:40 left in the first half, Harper drove down the lane but was swarmed by a host of Terp defenders. Left with nowhere else to go, Harper tried to force a kick-out pass that was deflected by Aaron Wiggins and intercepted by Eric Ayala, sparking a fast-break that led to an easy lay-in for Ayala.
The Terps continued to turn defense into offense in the second half, with Ayala once again playing a role.
Rutgers guard Paul Mulcahy spun across the lane with 14:15 left, where he was double-teamed by Ayala and Jairus Hamilton. Planting his pivot foot and looking for an outlet, Mulcahy’s attempted pass was tipped by Hamilton and into the hands of Donta Scott, who immediately pushed it up the floor.
With Ayala running alongside him, Scott hit his teammate in stride, where he set his feet behind the three-point line and buried the triple, giving Maryland its largest lead of the game up until that point at 14.
“That’s something I wanted to buy in on to feel like I’m part of the team,” Ayala said of the team’s growing defensive identity. “Our whole team is locked in defensively and I think for us to be great defensively, one through five, everybody’s gotta be on the same page.”
Maryland converted 20 points off Rutgers’ 15 turnovers, four above its season-average of 11.5. The Terps have also held opponents to 59.5 points per game over its last 10 games, a testament to the team’s commitment to playing defense-first.
A balanced scoring attack got it done
Maryland’s offense has been tough to pin down this season, to say the least.
Early in the season, the team utilized a scoring-by-committee type of approach, with several players each contributing to the team’s overall scoring total night by night. However, as the season has worn on, the Terps have relied much more on its two go-to scorers in Wiggins and Ayala, with each accounting for almost half of Maryland’s total shot attempts this year.
But the Terps struggled to get anyone going early offensively on Sunday. With its opponent dealing with its own scoring droughts offensively, Maryland was unable to take advantage and pull away on the scoreboard, leading by just eight points at halftime despite Rutgers converting on just one field goal in the final eight minutes of the half.
“We were really struggling, we couldn’t make a shot,” Turgeon said. “...We just kept saying as a staff, ‘If we can just score a bucket, I think we can pull away again.’”
Maryland came back out for the second frame looking to put Rutgers away quickly, doing so by getting the whole team involved.
The Terps opened the scoring with a spot-up triple from Hakim Hart, his first points of the game to give Maryland its first double-digit lead of the afternoon. Wiggins followed that up with a three-pointer of his own, with Morsell adding a free throw a possession later to continue to add to the lead.
“Yeah, they were huge,” Wiggins said of the first five minutes of the second half. “I mean, it kind of set the tone for how the rest of the game was gonna go. We were able to come out, get a couple stops, execute on offense. It helped lead to the win that we got.”
Maryland ended up with each player in its starting five reaching double-figures, led by Ayala’s and Wiggins’ 14 and 13 respective points. All eight players that saw the floor also got on the scoreboard, a rarity for the Terps since Big Ten play began.
It’ll likely still be Ayala and Wiggins shouldering most of the load offensively the rest of this season, but being able to have other guys capable of picking up the slack on off nights for each of them could make a huge difference.