Hakim Hart gathered the pass from Darryl Morsell and hoisted up the unlikely go-ahead 3-pointer from the right wing. His Maryland basketball team, shorthanded and undersized, was somehow hanging with No. 12 Illinois on the road. Morsell had just come up empty on a floater, the Terps’ 10th miss in 11 tries. But Galin Smith tapped the ball back out, and Morsell swung it to Hart, and the sophomore let it fly.
The shot spun around the rim and fell, giving the Terps a one-point lead with 1:18 remaining. Morsell’s driving layup on the next possession put Maryland up three. Illinois had its chances in the final minute, but Ayo Dosunmu’s game-tying heave hit the back iron and the Terps escaped with a 66-63 stunner of a victory in Champaign, Ill., on Sunday, Jan. 10.
Maryland wasn’t supposed to have a chance. The Terps entered with a 1-5 record in the Big Ten; Illinois was 5-1. Maryland had been getting dominated in the paint on both ends of the floor; the Fighting Illini had 7-foot, 285-pound center/intimidator Kofi Cockburn. The Terps were coming off a 22-point loss to No. 5 Iowa; that same night, Illinois outscored Northwestern 53-13 in the second half en route to a 25-point win. And just for good measure, Maryland announced just before tipoff it would be without junior point guard Eric Ayala, leaving the team without its only experienced floor general.
But the Terps just hung around, and hung around, and hung around. They fell behind 16-9 but answered with a 9-0 run to pull ahead in the first half. They stayed within range throughout the period, and Donta Scott’s 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer took them into the break trailing just 34-32. They went on a 14-4 run early in the second half to take a 48-43 advantage. And somehow, despite scoring just three points since the 9:10 mark, they were still right there to deliver the final punches at the end.
“It was good to see. The guys responded. I’m happy for them,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s been an unbelievably tough stretch, hard stretch. We’ve got some guys banged up and they just competed their tails off in all facets tonight.”
Morsell owned the second half, scoring 15 of his career-high 19 points after intermission. The senior, still playing in a Rip Hamilton-style plastic mask after fracturing a bone in his face Dec. 31, knocked down eight of his 16 field-goal attempts, including his first five of the second half. After missing his next three, he still had the confidence to drive down the baseline and finish a difficult layup around Cockburn in the final minute. He’s made bigger plays as a Terp, but not this season.
“He’s everything — he’s the heart of this team,” Turgeon said. “He’s everything for us, so hopefully we can keep him healthy and hopefully he can continue to lead this team.”
Scott shouldered his share of the scoring load as well, tallying 11 points in the first half and 16 overall. The sophomore shot 5-of-10 and pulled down eight rebounds. Junior Aaron Wiggins countered a 3-of-11 showing from the field by going 5-of-5 at the foul line to finish with 12 points of his own, while Hart chipped in nine. Maryland shot just 40 percent from the floor as a group, but held Illinois to 41 percent and made up the difference with a 14-of-17 clip on free throws.
The last of those missed foul shots, though, almost proved costly. Scott clanked the front end of a one-and-one with eight seconds left and Maryland up 66-63. That gave Dosunmu, Illinois’ potential All-American on the wing, one last look in a dominant second half. The junior was just 2-of-11 for seven points in the first period, but had 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting since the break. Everyone expected him to take that last shot, and even his off-balance 3 looked like it had a chance. But it clanged off the back of the rim, and Scott corralled the long rebound as time ran out.
Cockburn, Illinois’ other superstar, finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds and shot 8-of-10 from the field, but after a 16-point first half, Maryland managed to contain him down the stretch. Smith — the Terps’ most physical low-post option at 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds — played 16 of 20 second-half minutes to lead that effort, with frequent double-teams and sporadic Chol Marial appearances mixed in. Maryland’s struggles containing opposing big men had been fatal in three straight losses, but the Terps did just enough to keep the ball out of Cockburn’s hands late.
Illinois brought nine players into the game, but just five found the scoresheet. Dosunmu’s 23 and Cockburn’s 21 were supported by Adam Miller’s nine, Andre Curbelo’s eight and Coleman Hawkins’ two. Starting point guard Trent Frazier went scoreless after suffering a shoulder injury late in the first half, while versatile forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili was shut out in eight minutes.
On the other side, Maryland rode its starting five of Hart, Morsell, Wiggins, Scott and Smith for a combined 166 of 200 minutes — Wiggins logged 38, Scott 37 and Morsell 36. Hart functioned as the Terps’ primary ball-handler, with freshman guards Aquan Smart and Marcus Dockery helping man that role in sporadic relief (they played seven and eight minutes, respectively). Marial’s eight minutes included his first career 3-pointer, while Jairus Hamilton knocked down one triple in a season-low 11 minutes.
“When you lose somebody like Eric … everyone has to step up to a certain degree,” Wiggins said, “whether that be energy, whether that be guys on the bench, whether that means scoring on offense, rebounding or making plays. With Darryl and the help of our leaders, we were able to just have the mindset to go win and do whatever it takes to win.”
Maryland’s upset moves the Terps to 7-6 overall but just 2-5 in Big Ten play; amazingly, both league wins are on the road against top-tier opponents; Wisconsin and Illinois are a combined 9-1 against the rest of the conference. With both teams still in the top eight of KenPom’s predictive metrics, Maryland has two of the most impressive victories of the entire college basketball season. It’s also the program’s first season with two top-15 road wins since 1996-97.
After playing three games in seven days, the Terps are off until a Jan. 16 home tilt against Nebraska, which is winless in the league. The Big Ten gauntlet continues after that contest — No. 10 Michigan and No. 16 Minnesota on the road, plus a Wisconsin rematch, are still to come just this month — but a victory like this can provide a lasting shot of confidence. And this is a group that, through a turbulent season, has continued to believe in itself.
“This team is full of guys that just fight,” Morsell said. “That’s all we know. We just know to fight, move on and just keep going.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox