On Dec. 14 in a loss against then-No. 19 Rutgers, the Terps suffered from a three-point barrage from Ron Harper Jr. who finished with 27 points, aided by a dominant post presence from Myles Johnson who tallied 10 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks at the XFINITY Center.
Sunday’s victory at the RAC represented a complete flip of the script, as that duo combined for a meager 10 points, unable to navigate Maryland’s suffocating defense with perfectly timed rotations and active hands in the passing lanes.
Defense improvement has been a storyline for the Terps recently, as Maryland has held opponents to an average of 59.5 points per game over its last nine contests. Sunday’s tilt against Rutgers was the culmination of that progress, as the Scarlet Knights turned the ball over 15 times and looked flustered on many of their offensive possessions.
While Maryland’s defense throughout the game was superb, one possession showed their buy-in and progress more than any other. It ended in a shot-clock violation for Rutgers with 2:17 remaining in the first half and showcased the Terps’ movement, rotation and fluidity with all five players working on one accord.
“We hold guys accountable,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Our guys are dialed into our rotations; we know how we have to play. We call it Maryland defense.”
As the possession progressed, Geo Baker passed off to Harper who was flanked by Darryl Morsell. Harper then handed the ball off to guard Jacob Young, as Morsell switched onto him and then Jairus Hamilton slid to Harper, effectively communicating the switch.
After the ball reversed sides and went back to Baker, Morsell picked him up and Hakim Hart traveled with Young. With the shot clock beginning to wind down, Morsell slowly nudged Hamilton further out onto guard Paul Mulcahy, putting him in a better position to contest a perimeter jumper.
Unable to find space, Mulcahy called for a screen from Cliff Omoryui, which Hamilton fought over. Having no space in front of him, Mulcahy once again dished off to Baker who then fed it to Harper in the corner. Utilizing a shot-fake, Harper then kicked to Baker who was hounded by Morsell and Eric Ayala, as head coach Mark Turgeon screamed ‘Get Up’ from the sideline.
With two Terps swarming him, Baker’s shot left his hands as the buzzer blared at the RAC. After cementing a shot-clock violation, Morsell pumped his fist and patted Ayala on the back, a shining example of the team’s continued commitment to locking in on the defensive end of the floor.
“Our whole team is locked in defensively, and I think for us to be great defensively 1 through 5, everybody has got to be on the same page,” Ayala said. “When guys come in everybody gotta pick up where we left off, so defensively that’s definitely become our identity.”
Maryland’s defensive progress has also been aided by its improvement offensively with both increased ball and body movement. The Terps’ offense in recent games is playing with a flow and cohesiveness that it has been searching for much of this season. The stagnation and complacency that defined some of Maryland’s prolonged scoring droughts earlier in the season, have largely dissipated.
“We’ve worked on every aspect of our game, especially defensively,” Aaron Wiggins said. We know how good of a defensive team we are. Our guys have showed a lot of improvement in a lot of different things this last month alone.”
There were several examples of that growth in the win against Rutgers, but a pivotal bucket from Hart down the stretch speaks to the team’s increasing comfortability and chemistry with one another.
With 2:10 remaining and the Terps needing a bucket to hold off the surging Scarlet Knights, that off-ball movement paid dividends. After navigating Rutgers’ press, Donta Scott fed Hart near the right baseline who promptly dished the ball to Wiggins.
Pausing for a couple seconds, Wiggins passed the ball to Hamilton just beyond the left wing. Once Hamilton had the ball, Scott signaled Hart to move towards him as the big man was setting a down screen on Montez Mathis. Wiggins also set a screen in the area as well, Hart split the space between the two screens executing a perfectly timed v-cut towards the basket.
“The kicker is we’re getting better offensively,” Turgeon said. We’re getting more open shots, we’re getting downhill. We’re getting to the foul line more and taking advantage of our matchups at the other end.”
Hamilton delivered the no-look pass to Hart in stride who caught the ball and then utilized an up-fake, baiting Baker into the air and then drawing contact for the finish. The layup plus the free throw once again extended the Terps advantage to double-digits, crushing the hopes of a Scarlet Knights comeback.
That continued ascendance on both ends of the floor is an encouraging development for Maryland, which is playing some of its best basketball of the season when it matters most.
“I think we can get better, we’re getting more confident, which is huge,” Turgeon said. “I still think there’s better days ahead for this team.”