Maryland basketball’s gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule has brought a seemingly never-ending onslaught of challenges. The Terps’ matchup with No. 17 Minnesota Jan. 23, was their ninth in conference play and their seventh against a ranked opponent. It was their sixth Big Ten road game against just three home contests. They entered just 2-6 in league play, in danger of falling even further.

But the flip side of a daunting challenge is a great opportunity. And Maryland rose to the occasion on this day, claiming a 63-49 victory against the Golden Gophers. It’s the Terps’ third road win against a ranked team this season — they’ve pulled similar upsets at Wisconsin and Illinois — marking the first time in program history it’s reached that number in a single campaign.

The Terps led wire-to-wire, bringing the energy from the opening tip. Just four days after falling behind 17-3 at Michigan en route to a blowout loss, Maryland raced out to a 17-3 lead of its own. Minnesota clawed back to make it a three-point game, but the Terps responded and took a 36-27 lead into the break. They then clamped down even further on the Gophers in the second half, holding the home team to 6-of-24 shooting after intermission to cruise to the upset.

Junior guard Eric Ayala led Maryland with 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting, sophomore forward Donta Scott added 15 points and 11 rebounds and junior guard Aaron Wiggins chipped in eight points and 10 boards. The Terps were far from stellar offensively — 19-of-45 from the field, 8-of-23 from distance, 17-of-29 from the line — but their defense made it not matter.

Maryland absolutely smothered the Golden Gophers in its best defensive performance of the season. Minnesota shot 14-of-46 (30.4 percent) as a team and knocked down just 5 of 23 triples (21.7 percent). Star guard Marcus Carr went 8-of-14 and piled up 25 points, but he got absolutely no help, as the rest of the squad shot just 6-of-32 and 2-of-17.

“Our effort was better tonight. Our ‘locked in’ was better tonight. Our rotations were better tonight,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said. “And we just keep showing [the players] on film, we just gotta keep doing it. We can’t be an every-other-game type team, and tonight we were locked in and we did it.”

Here’s the best of the Terps’ latest statement road win.

The Star: Eric Ayala

Maryland wasn’t sure what it would get from the junior guard, who missed two games with a groin injury and came off the bench in his return against Michigan. Ayala came out firing, though, hitting his first three shots to lead Maryland’s opening charge. He had eight points in the first 7:41, finished the opening half with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and finished 8-of-14 for 21 points.

Ayala entered as Maryland’s leading scorer with 13.8 points per game, but like seemingly everyone on the team, hasn’t produced on a consistent basis. His role has changed slightly in recent games, as he’s moved off the ball while Hakim Hart functions more as the point guard, and at least for now, it seems to be paying off.

The X-Factor: Darryl Morsell

Morsell is well known as the Terps’ “glue guy” — even when the senior isn’t contributing on offense, he’ll bring defense and toughness on a consistent basis. Against Minnesota, he scored just four points on 2-of-6 shooting, and continued a poor season at the foul line with an 0-of-4 clip. But Morsell more than made up for it on the other end of the floor, providing stellar defense both on and off the ball. Maryland was plus-22 in his 32 minutes of action and minus-8 in eight minutes without him.

“Guys were locked in, but it all started with Darryl today on the defensive end, and it carried over to the other guys,” Turgeon said.

The Turning Point: A Hectic First-Half Finish

The opening period was defined by extended runs on both sides. Maryland jumped out to a 17-3 lead, then turned the ball over on six of its next seven possessions, allowing Minnesota to get back into the game. Turgeon called time after Carr made it 20-17 with 6:31 left, and Maryland answered with a quick 6-0 run. The Gophers had trimmed the margin back to six in the final seconds of the half and were prepared to enter the locker room down just two possessions.

Hakim Hart took the entry pass and launched a desperation three. It banged off the rim, but Minnesota’s Eric Curry bumped into Hart as he landed, prompting a last-second whistle. Hart hit all three free-throw attempts, and a six-point lead became a nine-point lead at the half. It’s hard to estimate how much this demoralized Minnesota, but the Gophers played the entire second half like they’d been rattled by something; they never got closer than six points again.

The Trend: Slowing Star Bigs

This is an undersized Maryland team in an oversized Big Ten. During the Terps’ gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule, nearly every opponent has had a big man capable of earning all-conference honors. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn averaged a combined 23.3 points and 10.8 rebounds against Maryland in a four-game stretch.

In the Terps’ last two contests, though, this trend seems to be reversing. Even in a blowout loss at Michigan earlier this week, Maryland limited Dickinson to three points and six boards. And in this contest, Minnesota’s Liam Robbins — who entered averaging 13.8 points and 7.3 rebounds — managed just six and two as he battled foul trouble. Robbins picked up his third and fourth fouls in the first 2:04 of the second half, sending him to the bench for an extended stretch. He ultimately fouled out with 4:41 remaining.

Maryland countered its size disadvantage by zagging toward an ultra-small starting lineup, with four guards surrounding Scott. The Terps ran a five-out offense that pulled Robbins away from the basket and opened up driving lanes. On defense, they doubled Robbins when he got the ball on the block and were quick enough to get back and defend the perimeter. It’s been a season full of adjustments in this realm, and while this strategy won’t work every game, it served Maryland well in this one.

The Meaning: A Resume-Building Win

As has been discussed in this space previously, Maryland brings an interesting body of work to the NCAA Tournament conversation. The Terps are now 9-7 overall and still just 3-6 in the conference, but none of the losses are worth much scorn, and the three ranked road wins are unrivaled nationally.

“Definitely contending to play for when March comes, it’s important for us to keep getting big wins and just rallying together wins away and at home,” Ayala said. “I don’t think we think about that when we step out on the court, but it’s just a matter of trying to get one win at a time.”

Preseason rankings and projections suggested this first half of the Big Ten schedule would be a challenge, but it’s been beyond even that. Minnesota and Michigan have outperformed preseason expectations, while Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin have stayed ranked all season. Six of Maryland’s nine Big Ten games have come against those teams. Two more were on the road against Purdue and Indiana — both likely Tournament teams at the moment — and while Rutgers has tailed off lately, the Scarlet Knights were ranked 19th when they beat Maryland to start conference play. The one postponed game was against Nebraska, the league’s lone relative pushover. You’d be hard-pressed to find a tougher stretch of games during the last month anywhere in college basketball.

It’s not over yet, as Maryland hosts No. 10 Wisconsin on Wednesday, Jan. 27. But only two of the Terps’ last nine Big Ten games are against currently-ranked teams, and both of those matchups are at home. They face 1-5 Penn State twice, 3-6 Northwestern once and 0-5 Nebraska at least once. After absorbing the punches and scoring some upsets throughout the past month, Maryland has plenty of reason for optimism going forward.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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