PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Following a tip from forward Jairus Hamilton, Aaron Wiggins grabbed the ball in mid air and sprinted down to the other end of the court to find Darryl Morsell right outside of the paint. The senior guard stormed towards the bucket and rose up for the slam to the elation of the Terrapin bench.
It was his second big play in a row after scoring a crucial and-one layup on the previous possession, met by a loud exclamation and teammates surrounding him with high fives of excitement. Rutgers had trimmed Maryland men’s basketball’s lead to six points with 7:37 left, but the senior guard led the charge to bring the advantage back up to 10 to put his team fully back in control.
The Terps coasted from there as their dominant performance continued in the 68-59 victory, putting an exclamation mark on the team’s best stretch of the entire season with four wins in one week.
“[We] got a tough group, guys that bounce back from adversity, guys that fight through, and it just shows how tough we are,” Wiggins said. “…It’s been extremely fun. 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.”
The last time these two teams faced was in the first game of Big Ten play back on Dec. 14, in which Maryland suffered a 74-60 defeat. The loss was the beginning of a 4-9 start in conference play for head coach Mark Turgeon’s squad, but things have shifted dramatically since.
Sunday’s victory marked the Terps fourth straight, with head coach Mark Turgeon’s squad defeating the likes of Minnesota and Nebraska in a back-to-back series in four days earlier in the week. Rutgers, a higher caliber opponent, presented a steeper challenge and a true test to how much progress this team had actually made as of late. Maryland (14-10, 8-9 Big Ten) stepped up to task to bring an NCAA Tournament berth fully within its grasp with three games remaining against bottom feeders in the conference.
“I didn’t know we could turn it around like this. I wasn’t sure,” Turgeon said. “And the guys are getting confident. So I’m just really proud of it. I think we can get better. We’re getting more confident, which is huge.”
The Terrapin defense took some time to figure out the Rutgers offense, allowing the Scarlet Knights to find some easy holes for open looks as the two teams went back and forth to start the opening frame. But the Terps then went on to force Rutgers into a scoring drought of nearly three and a half minutes, which allowed them to take their first lead of the game, 16-14, with 10:46 left in the half.
Similarly to the last time these two teams faced, the first half was a back and forth affair to start. In the December meeting — the first game of Big Ten play — Rutgers found momentum in the latter part of the half to build a 10-point lead, though Maryland managed to come back to take a one-point lead headed into the break.
But it was the Terrapin show this time around, with the visiting team taking the lead itself and then sustaining it to end the half.
With a little over two minutes left in the first, Hakim Hart patiently scanned the offense at the top of the key, looking for an opening. Eric Ayala made a fast cut to the right corner and Hart hit him wide open with perfect timing, allowing the junior guard to drain a triple. The bucket extended the Terrapin lead to 28-18, capping off a 9-0 run on four consecutive makes. Ayala had 14 points in Sunday’s victory, building off of a career-high 24 points last time out against Nebraska.
But the main reason for Maryland’s run was its lockdown defense, which held Rutgers without a field goal for the final 5:16 of the opening period, forcing the home team to make just one of its last 10 shots. The Scarlet Knights entered the halftime break with a season-low 20 points.
“It was terrific, terrific defense, and we work on it every day. We’re doing the same drills, we’re working on it and the guys have bought into it,” Turgeon said. “And I knew that for us to win this game, we had to be great defensively.”
The Rutgers drought carried over into the second half, with Maryland holding them without a score for over two minutes, making the scoreless streak last nearly seven and a half minutes.
Shortly after hitting a triple to give the Terps their largest lead of the game (34-22), Aaron Wiggins intercepted a deep Rutgers lob pass following a Maryland miss. He immediately got to work after spoiling the Scarlet Knight’s attempt to get a fast break look, finding Darryl Morsell with a pefectly placed bounce pass. Morsell was fouled on the layup attempt and made one of his two shots at the line to extend the Maryland lead to 13 points.
The Terps continued to showcase their improvement from the first matchup as the second half continued, extending their lead to as many as 15 points.
Rutgers brought that advantage down to eight points thanks to four consecutive made field goals, leading Turgeon to call a timeout with 8:49 left.
The lead trimmed down to six shortly after, with Rutgers getting two makes at the line following a foul from Eric Ayala. Maryland committed an offensive foul on the other end, putting the Scarlet Knights in the bonus for the rest of the contest.
But it wouldn’t end up mattering, with the Terps establishing itself back in the driver’s seat after extending the advantage back up to 10 points. They held the Scarlet Knights scoreless from the field for 4:37, continuing to suffocate their opponent on the defensive end as they had throughout the afternoon en route to the victory.
Though Rutgers’ offense started to heat up a little late, the Terps did enough to pull it out, with that minor spurt unrepresentative of a great defensive showing all game. Maryland held Rutgers to make just 21 of its 55 shots (38.2%), including 22.7% from deep, in the impressive win. The Terps also forced the Scarlet Knights into 15 turnovers, which they turned into 20 points of their own. Five Maryland players finished with steals, led by three from Morsell.
“If we just keep getting better, keep getting our rotations better, keep playing with that toughness that we played with today, better days are ahead hopefully for this team,” Turgeon said.
Five Terps finished the contest in double figures. In addition to Ayala’s 14 points, Wiggins had 13, along with 10 rebounds, while Morsell and guard Hakim Hart had 12. Forward Donta Scott chipped in 11 points along with seven rebounds.
Three things to know
1. The Terps have the possibility to finish above .500 in Big Ten play. After a frustrating 4-9 start, it seemed certain that Maryland would finish with a losing record in conference play this season. The Terps had played some of the best teams in the country, but there were glaring concerns. Everything seems to be coming together at just the right time, however, with the team moving to 8-9 with Sunday’s victory. With three games left against the likes of Michigan State, Northwestern and Penn State, Maryland has a real chance to finish one game above .500 in Big Ten play — something that seemed like an impossibility for much of the year.
2. Maryland stifled Ron Harper Jr. The Terps shut down Rutgers’ leading scorer, who entered the matchup having scored 27 points in the last meeting against Maryland and averaging 16.0 points on the season. Maryland refused to allow Harper Jr. to get into a rhythm early, holding him to just four first half points, all of which came from the free throw line.
His first field goal didn’t come until the 2:27 mark of the second half, finishing with just six points on 1-of-6 shooting on the afternoon, marking his second-lowest scoring outing this season.
3. Darryl Morsell had an injury scare. Maryland’s senior leader has been dealing with shoulder issues for most of this season, but appeared to have re-aggravated it on Sunday on an attempted defensive rebound. Morsell hobbled off the floor immediately, gripping his right shoulder all the way to the locker room. Following the game, Turgeon said Morsell’s shoulder didn’t come all the way out and they popped it back in two times.
He returned shortly after with a sleeve over his hurt shoulder, but showed no signs any lingering pain in his the rest of his run on the floor, allowing Turgeon and his staff to breath a sigh of relief with their best defender back. Turgeon said they were hesitant to let him play, but Morsell begged to go back in. His return paid dividends as he came up clutch to put the Terps fully back in control late.
“He definitely gonna fight for us,” Ayala said. “Through my time here with him, he’s gonna do whatever it takes for us to win. And he’s the heart and soul of our team, you know, his energy, it rubs off on everybody.”