Even in a pandemic-altered season, mid-February marks the beginning of the stretch run in college basketball. For Maryland, these last few weeks will determine postseason fate and perhaps more. And the Terps need to pile up wins in a hurry. So their 72-59 home win against Minnesota on Sunday, Feb. 14, was everything they could have asked for.
It was a reasonably stress-free Valentine’s Day for Maryland, which jumped out to a 16-3 lead and never looked back. The Terps led 44-28 at halftime and held a double-digit advantage for 32:52 of game time. Minnesota made a late charge, slashing a 17-point margin to six with 3:14 remaining, but Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins — who led all scorers with 17 points — responded with a backbreaking triple at the other end and keyed a 7-0 Terps run to close the game.
Maryland is now 11-10 overall and 5-9 in Big Ten play. Here’s what stood out about the game that brought it there.
1. Maryland’s offense showed up and stayed solid all night.
The Terps have been plagued by poor shooting nearly all season, and it had simply been too much to overcome in their last two outings. But it was never a problem on this night, as Maryland knocked down 27 of 51 (52.9 percent) shots from the field and 10 of 20 attempts from 3-point range. Buoyed by an especially efficient first half — 17-of-29, 5-of-8 — the Terps reached the 70-point threshold for the first time since their Dec. 28 upset of Wisconsin.
It was a balanced attack for Maryland, as four Terps scored in double figures. Wiggins’ 17 points came on 6-of-13 shooting (3-of-5 from deep), while Darryl Morsell shot 6-of-12 for 13 points and Eric Ayala went 4-of-7 (4-of-5 on threes) en route to 12 points. The frontcourt was also more of a scoring weapon than in the past — Galin Smith went 4-of-4 for 10 points, while Donta Scott tallied eight and Jairus Hamilton finished with seven.
Just as it did in its 63-49 win against the Golden Gophers Jan. 23, Maryland used its small lineup to its advantage. The Terps started four guards alongside Scott, which spaced the floor and pulled Minnesota’s bigs away from the basket. Combine that with Maryland playing a step quicker than the Gophers, and the result was a slew of quality looks.
“Offensively, we were good in the first half — we shared the ball, moved the ball, we cut, we got ‘em spaced, and we’re hard to guard in that small lineup if we’re moving the ball and doing things the right way,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said.
2. The Terps’ defense contained Minnesota’s most potent weapons.
The Gophers, who have been ranked as high as 16th in the AP Poll, have been able to consistently lean on guard Marcus Carr and center Liam Robbins this season. But Maryland has contained both players well — the Terps effectively shut down Robbins in both meetings, and after Carr tallied 25 points in the first matchup, he managed just nine points on 4-of-15 shooting. Robbins went 1-of-8 for three points after a six-point showing in January.
Morsell spent the majority of the night locking down Carr, while Scott and Smith were the primary defenders on Robbins. The Gophers were forced to rely on bench players Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Isaiah Ihnen, who scored 14 and 12 points, respectively. As a group, Minnesota shot an abysmal 19-of-59 (32.2 percent) from the field and 8-of-28 (28.6 percent) from distance.
“I always tell the guys defense wins championships,” Morsell said. “If we’re locked in defensively, I think defense also helps out our offense — we get stops, we get out and run and score in transition and stuff like that. So I always go into every game making sure we’re dialed in defensively.”
3. Galin Smith played his best game as a Terp.
The graduate transfer from Alabama has been a mainstay in Maryland’s rotation this season, although at times it’s appeared his lone redeeming quality was his 6-foot-9, 235-pound stature. Smith entered play Feb. 14 averaging just 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in a shade under 15 minutes per game. On this night, though, he gave the Terps something they’d been longing for.
“He gave us a low post presence, which we really don’t have,” Turgeon said. “He made two jump hooks in there, which were big buckets for us. So it was good. He keeps getting better, he keeps getting more comfortable, we keep getting more comfortable with him, and you’re seeing growth among players individually and among our team. It was his best game — I’m really happy for Galin.”
Smith logged 21 minutes, made all four of his field goals and sank two early free throws. He tallied 10 points, five rebounds, four assists (a career high) and two blocks. Smith also played a significant role in quieting Robbins, highlighted by drawing two fouls early in the first half and a second-half blocked shot. The Big Ten is loaded with dominant big men, and Smith has faced nearly all of them, but he’s handled Robbins as well as any.
“All those matchups, I take serious, I take personal every night, regardless of who it is,” Smith said.
It’s never too late in the season for a player to hit their stride, and Maryland needs all the production it can get. As the Terps continue their stretch run, they’d love for Smith to become a reliable option in the frontcourt.
As discussed last week, Maryland closes the regular season with its easiest stretch of Big Ten games — with the league announcing Nebraska would play a back-to-back in College Park to make up a postponed game from January, the Terps entered the weekend favored by KenPom in six of their last seven contests. Considering they need to pile up wins — think a 5-2 finish for a 9-11 league record — the slate provides a semblance of hope.
Beating Minnesota, and doing so in commanding fashion, is a strong start. Back-to-back home games against Nebraska on Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 16 and 17, are essentially both must-wins — even though the Cornhuskers are playing better and got their first conference win against Penn State Feb. 14, it would behoove the Terps to avoid any Quadrant 3 losses right now. After Maryland visits Rutgers Feb. 21, it closes with three more games against teams at the bottom of the standings (Michigan State, Northwestern and Penn State).
There are plenty of hurdles still to be cleared. But a performance like this can go a long way.
The Brenda Frese section
Just minutes before the men’s game tipped off in College Park, Maryland women’s basketball picked up a 95-73 win on the road against Nebraska. It was a historic win, as Terps head coach Brenda Frese recorded her 500th victory with the program — a milestone number by itself, but also the win that moved her past Chris Weller as the winningest coach in the history of Maryland basketball, period.
Under Frese, Maryland has made 15 NCAA Tournaments, won five conference tournaments, reached three Final Fours and captured the 2006 national championship. Maryland is one of only seven national champions since 2000, and one of six women’s programs to reach Final Fours in both the 2000s and 2010s.
Consistency is a rare commodity in college sports, and that’s what Frese has brought to Maryland. Women’s basketball does tend to have a small number of teams in its elite tier, but only UConn and Stanford have been consistently dominant during the last two decades; Baylor and Maryland have been as consistent as anyone else. Notre Dame thrived in the 2010s but has struggled the last couple years.
Tennessee, which was the biggest brand in the sport during Pat Summitt’s legendary tenure, hasn’t made a Final Four since 2008. South Carolina and Louisville (coached by former Frese assistant Jeff Walz) have been fixtures at the top of the rankings over the last several years, but haven’t been as consistent for as long.
Frese and the Terps are still trying to get back to the mountaintop; the last few postseasons have actually been disappointing, as Maryland has just one Sweet 16 appearance since making back-to-back Final Fours in 2014 and 2015. Transfers and injuries have rendered this year’s squad rather thin, which could hold it back. But nearly two decades into her Maryland tenure, Frese still has the Terps playing at a consistently high level, and she’s shown no signs of slowing down.
“She makes it look easy, and it’s not,” Turgeon said of Frese at the beginning of his postgame virtual press conference. “So really happy for her and her staff, and all the staff before I was here and while I’ve been here, and all the great players that they’ve had. … Well deserved, and I’m sure she has a lot left in her tank moving forward.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox