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Behind defensive comeback effort, Maryland basketball defeats Michigan State, 68-57, to reach Big Ten quarterfinal

The Terps started slow, but found a groove and ran away from the Spartans.

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

With a little over 10 minutes left in the first half, Maryland men’s basketball trailed Michigan State by 12 points.

Head coach Mark Turgeon’s squad hadn’t won a game in the Big Ten tournament in five years, last defeating Nebraska on March 11, 2016, and early on it appeared that the abysmal streak would continue.

The Terps needed a response — quickly.

But it was at that moment that they flipped the switch. Maryland got it going on the defensive end, bringing Michigan State’s offensive momentum to a screeching halt to turn Thursday’s game on its head en route to a 68-57 victory.

“We weren’t guarding, we weren’t really locked in our defensive assignments,” Turgeon said. “And then we did. We locked in, we started competing, we started battling.”

Maryland went on to outscore the Spartans, 57-34, from that point on behind a stifling defensive effort. Michigan State shot just 22-of-53 (41.5%) from the field and 4-for-16 (25%) from beyond the arc in this one, turning the ball over 18 times as well in a poor all-around showing for the Spartans.

Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins led the way for the Terps offensively, scoring 21 and 19 points, respectively, in the victory, while holding the Spartans’ leading scorer in Aaron Henry to just 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting.

That last meeting with Michigan State began with a 11-0 Maryland run that saw the Terps cruise to a 18-point win, but Thursday’s contest started much differently.

The Terps began the game shooting 1-for-6 from the floor, exhibiting some of the same poor offensive tendencies that plagued them in their losses to Northwestern and Penn State. Maryland settled for multiple contested shots at the rim and at the three-point line, while the Spartans came out and executed from the jump on the other end.

Michigan State’s Rocket Watts and Malik Hall each sunk their first three-point attempts of the afternoon, providing the Spartans an early 8-0 to put them ahead 12-4 at the 15:10 mark.

While the Spartans continued to exploit the holes in the Maryland defense, the Terps seemingly could not get the lid off the rim, going over four minutes without a field goal.

Galin Smith found himself in space rolling to the rim after a pick-and-roll with Darryl Morsell, but had his dunk attempt rejected by Marcus Bingham Jr., leading to a slam on the other end for the Spartans. Maryland went on to turn it over on its next possession, leading to another Michigan State bucket and a timeout from Turgeon as the lead quickly ballooned to 11 points.

But for as well as Michigan State was playing on the offensive end, it raised the bar even higher defensively. The Spartans refused to allow any penetration on the perimeter for much of the first half, forcing the Terps deep into the shot clock and into low-quality looks possession after possession. After 10 minutes of play, Maryland only had 11 points, trailing 23-11 as the half began to wind down.

But it was at that moment that everything began to change in the Terps’ favor.

Maryland slowly began to make inroads on the deficit thanks to the same formula it used in its win on Feb. 28 to close the gap: getting to the free throw line and defending.

Eric Ayala again led the parade to line, continually using his patented hop-step toward the rim to get Spartan defenders off the ground time and time again and earn trips to the charity stripe. He shot a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line in the first half, sinking four freebies at the 4:18 mark thanks to a technical foul from Izzo to cut Michigan State’s lead down to just two. Maryland had finally found its mojo.

“Eric just missed a couple little ones early he thought he was gonna make and you’re like, ‘Oh, is this kid going to get going?’ He got going,” Turgeon said. “We were able to space them, spread the floor a little bit. We’re hard to guard when we space it. We did a good job driving and getting downhill.”

Maryland’s efforts to get back in the game were finally rewarded a minute later, when Donta Scott posted up his defender on the low block before kicking it to an open Hakim Hart for a massive triple, capping a 16-3 run to put the Terps back in front, 27-26.

“I think [driving] definitely helped,” junior forward Jairus Hamilton said. “It definitely helped with the spacing because... we found ways just to attack and make the defense collapse and then kick out to get open shots.”

The Terps found themselves with one last chance with the ball before the half came to a close, leading Michigan State by just a single point. Ayala brought the ball across half-court, sized up Joshua Langford and pulled the trigger on a step-back three, draining it as time expired to draw some heavy praise from his teammates and give the Terps a 34-30 going into the break. They had completely turned the game on its head.

The Terps picked up right where they left off as the second half got underway, led by an aggressive attack on the rim by Aaron Wiggins. He found himself isolated on Aaron Henry, hitting him with a jab-step before executed a beautiful spin and finish with his right hand to put Maryland ahead 40-30 and force a Tom Izzo timeout with 17:13 left.

Michigan State couldn’t buy a bucket as it began to fall behind, with the Terps continuing to play lockdown defense, their confidence growing. The Spartans were held scoreless up until the 13:43 mark of the second half, going almost 12 minutes without a field goal from the first half. They started the second going 1-of-12 from the field.

After draining a triple with under 12 minutes left, guard Darryl Morsell locked up Aaron Henry in the post and forced a turnover, streaking down the floor and receiving the pass from Aaron Wiggins in the lane to finish at the rim, a personal 5-0 run to give Maryland its largest lead of the game at 47-34.

Michigan State continued to press for any kind of comeback attempt, but the Terps weren’t allowing for that in this one. Each Spartan possession seemed to end in either a missed shot or a turnover, with many of those mistakes being taken advantage of on the other end by Maryland.

The Terps totaled 27 points off turnovers on Thursday afternoon, nearly 16 above their season average of just 11.1 per game.

By the 7:27 mark of the second half, the Spartans had converted on just four of their last 29 field goal attempts, a staggering collapse that was mainly credited to Maryland’s suffocating defensive effort.

Leading by 19 at that point the only question that remained was whether the Terps could kill this one off. And they did just that, even having the freshmen squad finish out the dominant victory. Maryland had finally broken its tournament losing streak, doing so against the king of March himself.

Three Things to Know

1. A matchup with Michigan awaits. With the win, Maryland advances to face the top seeded team in the tournament in Michigan. The Terps dropped each of their two games against the Wolverines this season in rather convincing fashion, but the best team in the Big Ten this season hasn’t been exactly immortal. Michigan lost to the likes of Illinois and Michigan State down the stretch of this season, two teams that Maryland has beaten itself.

2. The Spartans still had no answer for Ayala. When Ayala is getting to the free throw line, he can score points in bunches. That was the case in the previous meeting of these two teams, and the same held true on Thursday. Ayala followed up his 22-point performance from Feb. 28 with 21 points in this one, doing so on 5-of-15 shooting and going 10-for-11 from the free throw line. He also had nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.

3. The Terps were all over the offensive glass. Despite averaging just 6.4 offensive rebounds per game, dead last in the Big Ten, Maryland crashed the glass after missing against Michigan State. The first half had the Spartans outrebounding the Terps 17-13, but Maryland answered with a 22-20 margin in the second half, including nine boards on the offensive end.

“One emphasis before the game, Coach Turgeon said, ‘Let’s see who can rebound, who comes out with the most rebounds,’” Wiggins said. “And our guards did a really good job of taking on the challenge in trying to outrebound not only their bigs, but their guards as well. And that was really a key point for us to make sure that we did our best to rebound.”