For the first time since 1998-99, Maryland men’s basketball is 9-0.
The No. 3 Terps pulled away for a 72-51 victory against Notre Dame Dec. 4 at Xfinity Center. It’s their first win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge since switching leagues in 2014. And it came in convincing fashion, with Maryland leading by double digits the entire second half.
Jalen Smith excelled on both ends, tallying 15 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks. Three other Terps scored in double figures — Eric Ayala had 14, Aaron Wiggins had 11 and Darryl Morsell had 10, while Anthony Cowan Jr. was just behind with nine. On defense, Maryland held the Fighting Irish to 29 percent shooting from the floor.
Here’s what stood out from the win:
1. Maryland changed the game with one big run.
With 5:49 remaining in the first half, the teams were tied at 13 and the offenses were a combined 11-of-42 from the field. Maryland was mired in its customary early slump, and the Terps had dragged Notre Dame into the mud with them. Once Aaron Wiggins gave his team the lead with a free throw, though, Maryland never looked back.
Starting with an Ayala layup at the 4:27 mark, the Terps hit seven consecutive field goals, more than they had hit in their first 23 attempts. That gave them a 30-17 lead, and they held a 32-20 advantage at the break after Wiggins corralled his own missed three and slammed it down before the buzzer.
The run continued in the second half. Smith hit a corner three on Maryland’s first possession. Wiggins connected from deep. Morsell went coast-to-coast for a layup. Suddenly it was 40-22, with the Terps on a 29-9 run during an eight-minute stretch. Notre Dame never got back in it.
“That kind of broke us a little bit, and I think it was their defense, and they got some transition stuff on us,” Brey said. “Then you get the putback right at halftime and that’s such a momentum play. Again, they’re just so long and they’re hard to deal with. … We have not played against anybody like that in a while, even in the ACC.”
2. The Terps stifled Notre Dame defensively.
Early in the year, Maryland showed that it can frustrate teams with different looks on the defensive end. The Terps have used several different zones. They’ve pressed. But against the Irish, they didn’t need to stray from man-to-man. Notre Dame couldn’t do anything with it.
“We really worked hard on guarding the ball over the summer, and you see it,” Turgeon said. “Eric Ayala is twice the defender he was last year. Aaron Wiggins has become a phenomenal defender. … We’re comfortable enough to switch Stix [Smith] onto a guard in some ball screens.”
The Irish were 8-of-28 in the first half and 10-of-34 in the second half. They started the evening 3-of-17 from long range. T.J. Gibbs, their second-leading scorer, went 0-for-11. John Mooney and Prentiss Hubb, who scored 17 and 13, respectively, combined to shoot 10-of-27. All the way up and down the roster, Maryland had the length and physicality to make life miserable for Notre Dame’s offense.
“They kind of smothered us,” Brey said. “It almost demoralizes you playing against that, because it’s hard to get a clean look.”
3. Jalen Smith was all over the floor.
The sophomore had four double-doubles in Maryland’s first eight games, but this was easily his best performance of the season. He scored in the paint, hit a mid-range jumper and knocked down two triples for a team-high 15 points. He dominated the glass, grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds. And he added five blocked shots, also a career-best, for good measure.
Smith functions as the center in the Terps’ small starting lineup, which will mean some tough assignments in Big Ten play (starting with Illinois freshman Kofi Cockburn Dec. 7). After bulking up from 195 pounds in high school to 225 this season, though, he’s risen to every challenge so far.
“I’m proud of Stix. He’s growing up,” Ayala said. “I’m watching him finally grow into his potential that everyone knew he could be, and it’s just a blessing to watch him grow like this.”
4. Three-point shooting was a problem, until it wasn’t.
Maryland missed its first 10 shots from distance. The clanks came from all angles and from a variety of shooters, but they shared the same frustrating result. The Terps entered this game shooting just 31.6 percent from three this season, so a poor start in this category wasn’t stunning, but it was certainly the story of the game early on.
Ayala hit Maryland’s first triple with 3:09 remaining in the first half, and it seemed to take the lid off the basket. The Terps followed their 10 misses with a 7-of-12 clip during the next 15 minutes. Wiggins and Ayala hit two each, while Cowan, Smith and Hart all joined the party. The 8-of-29 final mark won’t turn heads, but Maryland is clearly capable of getting hot from beyond the arc.
5. The historic start continues.
The Terps’ win against Marquette Dec. 1 brought Maryland to 8-0 for the first time since 2006-07. This victory gave the Terps their first 9-0 start since 1998-99. That was Juan Dixon’s freshman year. Steve Francis and Laron Profit were in the backcourt with him. It’s been a while.
That Maryland team went 28-6 and was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Terps won a national title three years later. There have been plenty of promising Maryland squads since then, but this one is starting to feel special. Brey spent his entire press conference gushing about the Terps, and opposing coaches in Orlando called them a championship contender.
There’s a long way to go, starting with a pair of Big Ten games against Illinois (Dec. 7) and at Penn State (Dec. 10). But every win makes it easier for fans to believe.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox