Maryland men’s basketball struggles to contain Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker losing conference opener to No. 19 Rutgers

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Forward Ron Harper Jr. set a screen for guard Geo Baker and then rolled off on the left wing as Rutgers (5-0, 1-0 B1G) led Maryland (4-2, 0-1 B1G) 60-51 with 5:12 remaining. Harper then quickly gathered the pass from Baker and rose over Jairus Hamilton confidently swishing his fifth and final three-pointer of the night, in an impressive 27-point performance.

Harper’s basket and Baker’s assist were emblematic of the problems Rutgers’ talented duo gave Maryland all night long in the Scarlet Knights 74-60 victory. Both Baker and Harper combined for 42 points, 31 of which came in the second half, sinking Maryland’s hopes of winning its Big Ten opener.

“[Ron Harper] was a problem,” guard Eric Ayala said. “He hit a lot of big shots, he played pretty big for Rutgers.”

Rutgers finished 9-19 from behind the arc, while Maryland finished 4-20 unable to find a rhythm from three. Three of Maryland’s four threes came courtesy of sophomore Donta Scott who finished with a career-high 20 points and was the Terps only perimeter shooting threat throughout.

“I think we got good shots, we had a lot wide open threes out there,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. You’ve got to give [Rutgers] some credit, but you’ve also got to be like we missed some open [shots].

While Harper and Baker began to percolate as the second half began, the first half was a different story with both teams struggling to score for a majority of the half. The Terps started out just 2-10 from the field in the opening eight minutes, struggling with the Scarlet Knights’ combo of the length on the perimeter and strength on the interior. 

However, Maryland counteracted its struggles shooting with tremendous effort and hustle with an early +5 advantage on the glass in the first 10 minutes. Maryland’s hustle was also complemented by great aggressiveness, as Rutgers was in the penalty with 14:11 remaining in the first half. Struggling from the field, five of the Terps’ first 13 points came from the charity stripe.

With both teams battling back and forth and the score tied at 13, Rutgers found its groove offensively, penetrating to the basket and feeding its post players. On consecutive possessions, guards Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy displayed exquisite vision dribbling around defenders and dumping off to Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi. 

Rutgers’ last basket of the 10-point run was most impressive when Young showed his quickness penetrating the Maryland press and then feeding Omoruyi for the ferocious alley-oop jam. Just when it seemed like Rutgers had seized all of the momentum, Maryland’s defensive tenacity brought them back.

Over the final 6:44 of the first half, the Terps orchestrated a 15-4 run converting defense into offense, as Rutgers converted just 1 of its 11 final shots of the half. The trio of Darryl Morsell, Scott and Galin Smith combined to score seven consecutive points, which cut the deficit to 23-20 with 3:02 remaining.

Then Maryland converted on some of Rutgers mental lapses in the latter stages of the first half to take a 28-27 lead heading into halftime. Morsell, Ayala and Scott each contributed a basket in the final minutes, giving the Terps some momentum entering the second half. 

The second half began with an electric pace on both ends of the floor, with both teams playing at a faster pace compared to the first half. After Scott knocked down a three on Maryland’s opening possession, Rutgers quickly answered with a 7-0 run to regain the lead at 34-31, a lead which it would not relinquish again. As a majority of Rutgers’ offense was in the second half, that spurt was keyed by Harper and Baker’s efficiency from deep.

“In the second half [Ron Harper] just said I’m taking over the game,” Turgeon said. “[Rutgers] stretched us a little bit, they were able to get downhill, ball screen defense wasn’t good enough.”

Despite Rutgers’ success from the perimeter early on, Maryland’s offense didn’t allow Rutgers to pull away as it led by just two with 14:45 remaining. However, a brief cold spell from Maryland’s offense complemented by Rutgers’ scorching touch from behind the arc allowed it to build a more substantial lead. 

Over the next 2:51, the Scarlet Knights put together a 10-0 run once again with Harper and Baker serving as the catalysts. Johnson also added a basket during the run, part of his impactful 10 point, 16 rebound performance. 

Now trailing by 12 with 11:54 remaining, Maryland was in need of an offensive spark, which Scott provided once again. Although Scott provided an offensive burst with his perimeter shooting prowess, the Terps couldn’t put together consistent defensive stops to continue trimming the lead.

With Rutgers leading 55-51 with 10:56 remaining, Maryland needed a run to prevent the game from getting away. The Terps did exactly that with a 7-0 spurt, featuring a thunderous jam by Aaron Wiggins and Scott’s third and final three of the game to cut Rutgers lead to 55-48 with 8:58 remaining.

Seven was as close as the Terps would come for the remainder of the way, as Baker answered Maryland’s run with consecutive baskets to regain the Scarlet Knights’ double-digit lead. Maryland continued to battle down the stretch, but the Scarlet Knights timely shot making proved too much.

Maryland will now have eight days off to rest and reevaluate as it’s scheduled to host LaSalle on Dec. 22 at the Xfinity Center.

“It’s in us, I just have to do a better job day-to-day of just giving the guys confidence,” Turgeon said of the team’s shooting struggles. “Once they get it and they’re more confident we’re gonna play better.”