Maryland men’s basketball is on a two-game losing streak after falling, 74-60, at home to No. 19 Rutgers Dec. 14.

The Terps (4-2, 0-1 Big Ten) trailed for most of this game, although they led 28-27 at halftime following an extended run late in the period. Rutgers pulled ahead early in the second half and never let Maryland get closer than seven points for the final 13:09 of game time.

Ron Harper Jr. led the Scarlet Knights (5-0, 1-0) with 27 points, 19 of which came in an explosive second half. Geo Baker, who had missed three consecutive games after suffering a high ankle sprain in the season opener, returned off the bench and scored 12 of his 15 points after intermission. Myles Johnson, who also didn’t start, tallied 10 points and 16 rebounds for the visitors.

Donta Scott topped Maryland with a career-high 20 points and added eight rebounds. Eric Ayala finished with 12 points but shot just 3-of-11 from the field. As a team, the Terps shot a dismal 21-of-61 from the field and 4-of-20 from 3-point range.

Rutgers had similar struggles in the first half, connecting on just 10 of 30 field goals and missing 10 of their last 11. That cold stretch allowed Maryland to convert a 23-13 deficit into a 28-27 halftime lead. But the Scarlet Knights caught fire after the break, knocking down 19 of 30 shots and 7 of 11 long balls. Rutgers led 37-36 at the 15:26 mark, then went on a 13-2 run to take control of the game; that run was just part of a stretch in which the Scarlet Knights made eight straight shots. The lead hovered around nine down the stretch, but Maryland couldn’t get any closer, and Rutgers closed on a 9-2 run to raise the margin as high as it was all night.

“A loss is a loss,” Scott said. “And we’ve just got to come back stronger next game. Me more than anybody, I just want to win, no matter if I have a fantastic game and I score this amount of points, or this person scored this amount of points. I just want to win.”

Here’s what stood out from Maryland’s second loss of the season.

1. Maryland’s shooting went cold once again.

Through four games, the Terps were actually one of the best shooting teams in the country. They had connected on 52.3 percent of their field goals and 42.5 percent of their 3-pointers, and Maryland led the country in effective field goal percentage, per KenPom. But those four games all came against mid-major competition, and in two games against power-conference foes, the numbers have crashed to earth.

Against Clemson Dec. 9, Maryland shot 20-of-50 from the floor and 6-of-18 from distance (bogged down by an especially dismal first half). In this game, the Terps were even worse, connecting on just 34.4 percent of their field goals and 20 percent of their triples. It wasn’t just jumpers; Maryland only converted 7 of 19 layups.

The 3-point shooting made almost all the difference against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights made 20 of 41 shots inside the arc to the Terps’ 17-of-41, and Maryland made up that difference at the foul line (14-of-18 against Rutgers’ 7-of-16). But Rutgers finished 9-of-19 from long distance, and Maryland was 4-of-20. In a game where most other stats were even — both teams grabbed 38 rebounds, and Maryland committed just one more turnover — that 15-point difference was more than enough for Rutgers.

Maryland likely isn’t as bad a shooting team as it’s shown these last two games, but the Terps simply won’t win many more games unless they can start knocking down shots more consistently.

2. Donta Scott continued his sophomore-year breakout.

Scott hit three of his team’s four 3-pointers, all in the second half, and scored 20 of Maryland’s 60 points on the night. He was the only Terp to shoot better than 50 percent from the field, knocking down 6 of 10 shots (3-of-5 from distance). Maryland was minus-6 in 32 minutes with Scott on the floor — that was plus-1 with 1:59 remaining — and minus-8 in eight minutes without him.

In six games this season, Scott has set a new career high in scoring three different times. He tallied 14 points in 16 minutes in the opener against Old Dominion, then scored 17 against Mount St. Mary’s, then 20 in this one. His average of 13 points per game is bogged down by a two-point showing against Navy, but he’s now one point behind Ayala for Maryland’s scoring lead this season (78 points to Ayala’s 79).

“He’s more aggressive [in year two] — he has to be,” head coach Mark Turgeon said of Scott. “And then he’s shooting the ball better. He’s worked hard on his shot and … he’s confident out there. He’s got toughness to him. [He] just needs a little help right now, but it’s like you don’t want to take him off the floor.”

3. The backcourt struggles continued.

Through three games, Maryland’s veteran backcourt trio of a senior Darryl Morsell and juniors Ayala and Aaron Wiggins was the strength of the team. Since then, though, all three have gone cold at once. The shooting numbers tell the story simply enough.

• Ayala was 6-of-6, 6-of-10, 6-of-9 … then 3-of-9, 3-of-7 and 3-of-11.
• Wiggins was 5-of-12, 5-of-7, 5-of-11 … then 0-of-2, 2-of-10 and 3-of-8.
• Morsell was 5-of-10, 6-of-6, 3-of-5 … then 0-of-4, 2-of-10 and 3-of-13.

Injuries have played a part here. Wiggins injured his elbow in practice last week, which led to him coming off the bench against Saint Peter’s (and Hakim Hart dropping 33 points in his first career start). And Turgeon said after the Rutgers game that Morsell injured his shoulder recently as well. Those two, in a related story, have experienced a sharper drop-off than Ayala, who’s still getting to the line and has averaged 10 points in the last three contests.

It seems fair to say Maryland would have been squarely in this game with a more efficient performance from at least one of these experienced guards, and perhaps two of three would have been enough to make up the difference. But they didn’t deliver, and Maryland won’t survive if that continues.

4. The depth options were virtually nonexistent.

Rutgers basically has seven guys play starter minutes, but Baker and Johnson combined for 25 points off the bench (Johnson added 16 boards and two blocks). Maryland brought four players off the bench and got only nine points from the group.

Jairus Hamilton, who averaged 8.6 points and 4.2 boards in the first five games, posted just five points and one rebound and shot 2-of-7. Hakim Hart, he of the stunning 32-point explosion Dec. 4, scored one point and missed all three of his field goals against Rutgers. Freshman point guard Aquan Smart chipped in three points and four boards in 10 minutes, while sophomore center Chol Marial made a two-minute cameo in the first half. Marial also logged just five minutes against Clemson Dec. 9.

Much like last season, Maryland looked impressively deep in its early games and alarmingly thin against its first tough opponents. Being competitive in the Big Ten will require consistency from that quartet — as well as Galin Smith, who’s been starting at center. The Terps will add James Graham III sometime after Christmas; he’s a four-star freshman wing who should provide some bench shooting. Perhaps freshman guard Marcus Dockery can step up as well. Whoever it is, though, Maryland knows it can’t have the second unit be a non-factor.

5. Rutgers had the star power to overwhelm Maryland, and so does most of this league.

The Scarlet Knights began 2020-21 ranked for a reason: they returned a veteran core that would presumably have led them to the NCAA Tournament last season. Harper and Baker can both score from anywhere. Dynamic guards Jacob Young and Montez Mathis both entered averaging more than 16 points per game. Paul Mulcahy has been productive on the wing in Baker’s absence. Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi form a strong frontcourt tandem. While Rutgers’ depth is a question mark — those seven guys played 198 of 200 minutes — it’s clear this team will continue to be a force.

The bad news is that the conference is loaded with talented rosters like this. That’s reflected in the rankings — seven Big Ten teams are in the AP top 25, and the league has 12 squads in KenPom’s top 50 (Maryland fell from 40th to 50th with this loss). Unless Scott or one of the guards can become a consistent ace, the Terps will need strong performances across the roster to win games.

Maryland is scheduled to host La Salle Dec. 22, then visits Purdue on Christmas Day in a prove-it game. Matchups against No. 12 Wisconsin (Dec. 28 on the road) and No. 25 Michigan (Dec. 31) look more daunting now than ever. The Terps still have upside, but will need to pass one of these tests soon before aspirations become afterthoughts.

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

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Thomas Kendziora

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