It’s safe to say the odds weren’t in Maryland men’s basketball’s favor in the first half of its Feb. 7 game at Illinois. The Terps have struggled for years against ranked teams on the road, and the No. 20 Illini hadn’t lost a home conference game this season, and they came out firing to take an early 14-point lead.
But the No. 9 Terps found another gear. They slashed the lead down to two points at halftime, then took the lead early in the second period and never relinquished it. When the final buzzer sounded, Maryland had its most impressive win of the season — perhaps its most impressive win in several seasons — and was alone atop the Big Ten standings after a 75-66 victory.
The Illini, who had already squandered a 14-point lead against these Terps on Dec. 7 in College Park, Md., used a 13-0 run to take a 17-7 advantage Feb. 7. They stretched the margin to 29-15, but Maryland didn’t fold and instead started chipping away. The Terps cut it to single digits, then five, then a pair of Aaron Wiggins threes made it just 42-40 at halftime. And a 13-0 run early in the second half gave Maryland a 53-44 lead just like that. Illinois got back within one, but the Terps responded with a 10-1 run and kept their distance down the stretch.
Six Terps scored at least seven points, led by senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr.’s 20 (13 in the first half). Darryl Morsell added 15 points, Jalen Smith notched 11 to go with 11 boards, and Eric Ayala overcame shooting demons to hit two big threes and notch 12 in the second half. Wiggins finished with 10, while Donta Scott had seven in the opening frame.
Illinois rode an early dominance on the boards to its first-half lead, but Maryland shot 14-of-23 (60.9 percent) in the first half to stay close. And in the second half, the Terps’ defense clamped down and held the Illini to 7-of-27 (25.9 percent). For the game, Maryland shot 46.4 percent from the field and 38.5 percent (10-of-26) from three-point range, while holding Illinois to 36.1 percent overall.
Here’s what stood out from this massive victory:
1. Perhaps the single most notable turning point came with a bit more than eight minutes remaining in the first half, when Maryland suddenly deployed a full-court press. Morsell came up with the steal and found Scott for a layup that made it 31-21. This was just Illinois’ second turnover of the game, and the Terps forced a couple more as they spent the next several minutes shifting between a 3-2 and 1-3-1 zone. Maryland returned to its characteristic man defense after intermission, but the switch-up took Illinois out of an early rhythm.
2. Illinois’ cold shooting ultimately swung the contest. The Illini missed their first 11 shots of the second half, which coincided with Maryland’s decisive 13-0 run. While the Terps did a good job affecting plenty of shots, Illinois will be especially disappointed with its performance at the free throw line, where it converted just 14 of 24 attempts (starting 9-of-19).
3. Maryland is 12-0 when Morsell scores in double figures, and his 15 in this game are his most in conference play (his season high is 17). The junior went 4-of-9 from the floor, 1-of-3 from long range and 6-of-6 at the foul line, with five rebounds and three assists for good measure. While the five turnovers are less than ideal, he was everything his team needed him to be.
4. The big men somewhat canceled each other out in the first half, but the scoreboard and stat sheet both say Smith won the battle. He entered the locker room with two points and four rebounds, then finished with 11 and 11. Illinois freshman Kofi Cockburn had nine points and four rebounds, but went just 1-of-5 from the floor and was forced to rely on his foul shooting (7-of-10). He also battled foul trouble in both halves, which limited him to 27 minutes.
5. Illinois held an 8-0 advantage on the offensive boards in the first half, which led to 11 second-chance points. The second half was less of a blowout in this category, but the Illini still led 14-5 in offensive rebounds and 17-4 in second-chance points for the game.
6. Maryland’s only bench points came from Wiggins, and the only points outside the top five came from Scott, who tallied seven in a stretch of 3:14 in the middle of the first half. As has become the norm when games are high-leverage for all 40 minutes, the Terps’ top six logged 188 of a possible 200 minutes. Turgeon keeps emphasizing his team’s need to get deeper, but it still hasn’t happened quite yet.
7. There were five technical fouls called in this game. Turgeon was whistled first for arguing an offensive foul call against Cowan. Director of basketball operations Mark Bialkoski was called later in the half for arguing reserve center Joshua Tomaic was hooked while trying to make a play. Morsell and Illinois’ Andres Feliz were called for (dubious) double technicals a few minutes later, and Illini coach Brad Underwood picked one up in the second half during Maryland’s big run.
8. Illinois swingman Da’Monte Williams is part of the starting lineup, but he’s an almost all-defense player, entering Feb. 7 without a point since Dec. 29. Naturally, he hit two triples early in the first half to key the first big run. Oddly enough, though, he didn’t attempt another shot the rest of the way.
9. Ayala, meanwhile, got his big breaks late. The sophomore has been mired in a massive shooting slump — he entered the game 6-of-35 on threes in the calendar year, and started this game 0-for-4. But with his team clinging to a 53-52 lead and coming out of a timeout, he got another open look, pulled the trigger and drained it. A few minutes later, he got the world’s luckiest bounce for three more. His 12 points are his most since Dec. 10, when he tallied 15 in a loss at Penn State.
10. With six consecutive wins, Maryland is alone in first place in the Big Ten. The Terps (19-4, 9-3) have also locked down the head-to-head tiebreaker with Illinois should the teams be level at the end of the season. There are still eight games to play, but at 9-3 in the league, Maryland is a game ahead of the Illini and Michigan State, 1.5 above Penn State and two clear of Iowa and Rutgers.
After a home matchup against Nebraska Feb. 11, the Terps have yet another massive road test Feb. 15 as they travel to Michigan State for the first leg of a home-and-home. It won’t be easy, but neither was this game. And Maryland turned this test into a signature win.
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