Stellar interior defense, hot start, propelled Maryland men’s basketball over Michigan

Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

If the Maryland men’s New Year’s resolution was to play better than they did against Michigan on Jan. 1, they followed through by avenging their blowout loss in a rematch in College Park last night.

Eighteen days after a horrid 81-46 defeat in Ann Arbor, the Terps hosted the Wolverines for Round Two and came away with a 64-58 victory to improve to 12-6, 3-4 in Big Ten play.

The two games could not have been more different; the Jan. 1 massacre served as the team’s low point. Yes, Maryland also lost to UCLA 87-60 on Dec. 14, but that was coming on the tail of an early December gauntlet. 

Against the first matchup with Michigan, the Terps shot a season-low 26.5% from the field, including 5 for 25 from three. They posted an offensive rating (an estimation of points scored per 100 possessions) of 61.3, another season low, and put up a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 108, second-worst to that infamous UCLA game.

That night saw Michigan star center Hunter Dickinson ease into 32 points and 12 rebounds over Maryland big man Julian Reese, who struggled all game before fouling out. Jahmir Young shot a paltry 2-9 from the field, and Don Carey’s 0-8 disaster class from three got him temporarily benched in the Rutgers game that followed.

In their second chance against the Wolverines (10-8, 4-3 in Big Ten), Maryland coach Kevin Willard predicted that if the Terps got five points in the first five minutes, they’d win the game. A horrifically slow start doomed them last time they played Michigan.

Willard’s hopes realized in the first four minutes, with a 7-0 run giving the Terps a lead they’d never relinquish. Instead of getting flattened in the rebounding department like they did last time, they fought hard on the glass to limit second-chance Wolverine points.

Dickinson, the focal point of the Michigan offense and a beefy seven-footer with scoring range and versatility, still managed 19 and 10 in the loss. He got a chance to show off his three-ball, hitting three of five long-range attempts, but Willard was pleased with the sophomore, who limited him down low compared to the last game.

“I think Julian played the best basketball game he can against one of the best basketball players in the country,” said Willard. “I thought he was physical all night, stuck to the game plan, made it tough for Hunter. Ever since Juju’s sort of got healthy and got his legs back, he’s been playing really good basketball. I think playing [Dickinson] a second time, especially Julian, I think he had such a better feel for what he had to do.”

Jahmir Young was surgical in leading Maryland to victory, slithering to the hoop at will to rack up 26 points, outscoring his former DeMatha teammate, Dickinson.

Young has been on a tear, averaging 22.3 points since the loss to Michigan. He’s also averaging a staggering 26.6 points in Big Ten games in the Xfinity Center, which also helps explain how the Terps are 9-1 at home.

Reese held his own on the boards, amassing nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end. He has struggled staying out of foul trouble in the last four games, but flew under the radar on Thursday night with only two. 

Senior wing Hakim Hart contributed his standard 10 points and 5 rebounds, and senior forward Donta Scott added eight more rebounds despite another cold shooting performance. 

One of the most notable contributions, however came from a player who hasn’t had many opportunities to make an impact, freshman center Caelum Swanton-Rodger. The unproven prospect played the most meaningful stretch of his young college career. Filling in for usual backup Patrick Emilien, he chipped in four points, three rebounds, a block and, most memorably, a poster dunk over Dickinson to send the crowd into a frenzy.

“I think [Caelum’s] seven minutes were probably the most important minutes we’ve had all season,” said Willard. “Being big and physical in there and just making it as tough for Hunter as possible…it was a big seven minutes.”

“I’ve always kind of said whenever I get the ball, I’ll try to dunk it,” said Swanton-Rodger. 

“Coach would have cussed him out if he didn’t dunk that,” Young added.

The Terps made up for mistakes made on the road, but still have some work to do. Young, who can get past just about anybody one-on-one, has been on a roll, but much of the offense around him looks stagnant for long stretches, leading to their scoring droughts. Their defense, on the other hand, has been top-notch, with all five starters and their bench unit acting as capable man defenders. 

They did their jobs against Dickinson in their second chance, but will need all the momentum they can get as they travel to No. 3 Purdue on Sunday to take on Zach Edey, one of the most dominant player in college basketball.