When Maryland basketball has been in search of offensive spark this season, it has relied on its defense to serve as a catalyst. Tuesday night’s contest against Rutgers epitomized that trend, Maryland’s heightened defensive intensity spearheaded their 56-51 comeback win over Rutgers in what was otherwise a defensive dogfight.
“We had to have a good start to the second half and we did,” head Coach Mark Turgeon said.
Understanding a fast start was needed, Maryland came out in the second half with increased energy on both ends of the floor. Trailing Rutgers 27-22 with 17:03 remaining, guard Darryl Morsell rose up from the B1G Logo, and soared for a ferocious jam, sending the Xfinity Center into raptures. On the ensuing defensive possession, center Jalen Smith denied center Myles Johnson’s layup. That was one of Jalen Smith’s career-high six blocks in another impressive defensive performance from the standout sophomore.
Off the block, the Terps ran in transition, setting up an easy basket for Morsell to continue trimming the lead. Those four points highlighted an impressive second-half performance from Morsell in which he scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds, displaying his grit and toughness.
“We really guarded in that stretch, and we were great defensively,” Turgeon said. “Defensively we had energy, got out on the break.
Immediately after the basket, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell called timeout, sensing Maryland was gaining momentum. Despite Pikiell’s timeout, the Terps responded with an 8-2 run once again fueled by sound fundamental team defense.
During that stretch, Jalen Smith energized the Xfinity Center with acrobatic blocks and versatile offense. First, “Stix” buried his third three of the game to put Maryland back on top 31-29, its first lead since the 9:59 mark of the first half. His most impressive highlight came shortly after, nearly tearing the roof off the Xfinity Center. Pushing the pace in transition on a feed from Eric Ayala, Smith rose up for an electric jam, putting guard Paul Mulcahy on a poster to increase Maryland’s lead to 34-29.
“It was huge, we needed it,” Anthony Cowan Jr. said of the stretch. “It got us going a little bit, the crowd was into it and then we were able to ride that wave.”
While the stifling defense was there in the first half, Maryland’s offense struggled mightily to take the lid off the basket, particularly the last 13 minutes of the first half. Rutgers closed the half on an impressive 19-6 run suffocating Maryland defensively, while also finding a groove offensively.
Rutgers entered the night as one of the best defensive teams in the country, boasting speedy guards as well as great length. That speed and length was on full display during the run, when Rutgers forced the Terps into several turnovers and allowed very few open opportunities. Each time one of the Terps touched the ball, the Scarlet Knights swarmed, forcing quick decisions.
Stopping Maryland on the defensive end, forward Akwasi Yeboah hit his stride from behind the arc, scoring nine of his 13 points in the first half. Yeboah made Maryland pay for over rotating and not communicating fast enough on several possessions. Playing complementary basketball, Rutgers held a 25-20 lead at the half — holding the Terps to their second lowest first-half total of the year.
Maryland seemed in firm control after Jalen Smith’s ferocious poster dunk, and the Scarlet Knights seemed to be rattled. However, like they have all season, Rutgers continued to battle and fight on every possession.
With 10:12 remaining, guard Caleb O’Connell made a tough jumper to bring the Scarlet Knights back to within two. The Terps responded, with another 8-2 run to extend the lead to 44-36 with 7:57 remaining. On the road in a hostile environment, the Scarlet Knights refused to relent, putting together a 11-3 run to tie the score at 47 with 4:07 remaining.
Down the stretch, Maryland orchestrated put together some of its best defensive possessions of the game, and made clutch free throws. Knowing Rutgers played with their hands defensively all night, Cowan rose up from behind the arc and drew a shooting foul on Montez Mathis with 2:12 remaining.
He confidently buried all three free throws to put Maryland back on top 52-49. With less than a minute remaining, O’Connell drove hard to the basket. He was met by Jalen Smith, who swatted the shot for his sixth and final rejection of the night, leaving Morsell to grab the defensive rebound.
Morsell made one at the line and then Maryland locked up on defense forcing the Scarlet Knights ninth and final turnover of the night. Once again, Morsell confidently stepped up to the line and made two clutch free throws to give Maryland a comfortable 55-51 lead with 27 seconds remaining.
“We wanted to win, I feel like at the end we just wanted it more,” Morsell said. “We put the ball in our veteran guy’s hands. So I feel like coach Turgeon trusts the veteran guys, our teammates trusted us and we just stepped up and made big plays.”
Down the stretch Maryland did what it’s done all season, relied on its defense and veteran leadership to put them over the edge in a hard-fought battle. Now, Maryland will travel to No. 20 Illinois on Friday with a chance to claim sole possession of the top spot in the Big Ten.