It took nine games to do it, but Maryland (11-9, 3-6 B1G) finally won back-to-back conference games. At the point in the season where it seemed as if all hope was lost, the Terps’ most recent wins have reignited faith that this 2021 squad has the potential to salvage this year’s underwhelming campaign.
Even if the team does crash and burn all over again, as more ranked opponents await in the coming days, the past few games have still been a significant sign of progress and ever present resiliency.
With a, 68-60, win over Rutgers, Maryland made its case as a potential Big Ten threat.
Here are three takeaways on the victory
1. Maryland is finally playing complete basketball.
Friday’s match against Illinois was the first time that Maryland had won both halves against a Big Ten opponent.
While Rutgers did slightly outscore Maryland in the second half, the Terps were able to maintain a healthy distance from their opponent throughout the majority of the contest. The same couldn’t be said when they played Rutgers ten days prior, when the Terps blew an 11-point halftime lead and went on to lose by 11 points.
Maryland’s win can be credited to their 18-2 run that spanned for eight minutes early in the first half. Just before the under-four timeout in the first half, the Terps possessed a 20-point lead.
While Rutgers gradually clawed back, the Scarlet Knights never found themselves to be any closer than a three-possession game.
Following weeks of disappointment, Maryland is finally putting coach Danny Manning’s philosophy into fruition.
“In practice, we’ve been talking about playing tip-to-horn,” said Manning. “I thought we came out and were able to do that for a good 36 minutes today.”
2. Maryland’s backcourt is playing some of its best basketball.
When Fatts Russell first transferred to Maryland, the combination of his play along with Eric Ayala prompted considerable optimism.
While the two have had flashes, it didn’t seem as if the guard combo reached their true potential.
The Terps visit at Piscataway was a prime example of how Maryland could perform if both players heated up at the same time. Together, they notched 45 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists.
Maryland’s disappointing first half of the season has shown scattered flashes from individual players, but rarely two at the same time.
“This is one of the few games that we’ve had two guys go off like this offensively throughout the course of the season,” Manning said. “Usually it’s one guy going off and then a few other guys contributing their normal average. So, when you get two guys to score like this, we’re a dangerous team.”
Throughout the game, the two hit tough shot after tough shot – shots that likely would not have gone down on a worse day. This was especially true in the second half. Russell and Ayala shot 8-16 while the rest of the team shot only 2-11.
3. Hakim Hart’s impact goes beyond the stat sheet.
Russell and Ayala might get most of the praise for what they were able to accomplish offensively on paper, but it was what Hakim Hart achieved defensively that led to the Maryland victory.
If the team wanted to leave Rutgers with a win, they needed to stop Ron Harper Jr., who put up a career-high 31 points in a Rutgers win the last time he faced Maryland. To avoid a similar fate, the Terps looked to the defensive services of Hart.
“Hakim’s been guarding the best player every night,” said Russell. “He takes pride in that.”
Harper managed to score only 16 points on 16 shots. His 0-4 shooting from beyond the arc was the first time he did not hit a three-point shot in conference play.
After the game, coach Manning could not sing Hart’s praises enough, as he declared him to be the team’s unsung hero.
“Hakim is a guy who – he’s the straw that stirs the drink,” said Manning. “He’s the glue that holds it together. He makes the right play. He makes big shots. He guards. [He] just [has a] great understanding and feel for the game.”