One week ago, Maryland men’s basketball was 4-9 in the Big Ten, 10-10 overall and 9-10 against Division I competition. The Terps were well on the outside of most projected NCAA Tournament fields, in desperate need of a hot streak to change their fortunes.

The hot streak arrived, and the fortunes have changed dramatically.

It would have been nearly impossible to dream up a better week for the Terps, who have now reeled off four consecutive victories. They shut down Minnesota and won back-to-back contests against Nebraska at home, then followed with a clutch win against Rutgers on the road on Sunday, Feb. 21. Maryland’s 68-59 defeat of the Scarlet Knights might not be its most impressive of the 2020-21 season, but it could prove to be pivotal.

“You win four games in two months and you win four games in eight days — it changes everything,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Today changes a lot because we beat a really, really good team that’s been playing well, in their building. … We just keep getting better. Guys are buying in. Guys are totally dedicated to what they have to do to be successful.”

The Terps led for more than 30 minutes of game time, pulling ahead in the middle of the first half and never looking back. With Rutgers holding an early 14-12 lead, Maryland’s defense clamped down, allowing the visitors to take a 28-20 lead into halftime. The lead reached double digits early in the second half, and the Terps survived a Rutgers push in the middle of the frame to hang on down the stretch.

Eric Ayala led a cohort of five Terps in double figures, scoring 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Aaron Wiggins recorded a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Darryl Morsell added 12 points and shot 5-of-8 on top of his trademark lockdown defense. Hakim Hart and Donta Scott joined the party late, finishing with 12 and 11 points, respectively — Hart went 7-of-9 and Scott 4-of-6 on second-half free throws.

Maryland matched a steady offensive performance with a stiff defensive showing on the other end. The Terps shot 22-of-47 (46.8 percent) from the field as a group and held the Scarlet Knights to 21-of-55 (38.2 percent) on the other end. Maryland made up for its 11 turnovers by forcing 15, and its 20-7 lead in points off those giveaways more than made up the difference.

Here’s what stood out from the Terps’ fourth straight win.

1. Maryland’s defense swung the game late in the first half.

With 12:26 remaining in the opening frame, Rutgers was 6-of-9 from the field and had just taken a 14-10 lead. From there, the Terps ramped up the defensive pressure and held the Scarlet Knights to 2-of-14 shooting for the rest of the half. Rutgers scored just six more points until halftime. This defensive excellence allowed Maryland to survive an offensive drought of its own — the Terps missed 7 of 8 shots between the 10:46 and 4:35 marks — and ultimately spurred a 9-0 run.

Rutgers eventually found some offensive production from Jacob Young (19 points, 6-of-13) and Geo Baker (13 points, 5-of-10), but the rest of the Scarlet Knights failed to find a rhythm. Leading scorer Ron Harper Jr. managed just six points on 1-of-6 shooting, while Montez Mathis scored nine on a 3-of-11 clip and Caleb McConnell went 0-of-5 in a scoreless effort.

Defense has become the Terps’ calling card of late — in their last eight games, they’ve allowed 49, 61, 60, 55, 73, 59, 50, 71 and now 59 points. Even Rutgers’ total in this game is skewed by the Scarlet Knights’ late attempt to extend the game. The 38.2 percent shooting continues a trend, as Maryland has now held its last nine opponents to a combined 37.4 percent from the field. And while the Terps have been able to turn defense into offense sporadically, it was a staple of their effort in this game.

“Our defense has gotten so much better, and we’re long in a way, even though we’re short,” Turgeon said. “Our wings are long, we’ve been playing with our hands — Coach [DeAndre] Haynes does a great job coaching that — so we just got a lot of deflections. Our double-teams are better, our rotations are better. We flew around. We have to fly around; we’re giving up a lot. And then to be able to score after turnovers is a big step for us.”

2. Maryland’s offensive attack was as balanced as it’s been in some time.

The Terps’ five double-digit scorers is the most they’ve had in a Big Ten game this season (previous high was four) and ties the most they’ve had in any 2020-21 contest. Ayala and Wiggins were the ringleaders as usual, combining to shoot 10-of-22 for 27 total points. Scott was as aggressive as he’s been in weeks, especially in the first half. Morsell — who left the game twice with shoulder issues but is not expected to miss time — was reliable around the bucket. And Hart turned a quiet performance (2-of-3 from the field) into a strong finish at the foul line.

But the balance was about more than the numbers on the scoreboard. The Terps shared the ball and moved well without it, resulting in good looks on a consistent basis. Maryland only shot 6-of-20 on 3-pointers, but had plenty of open looks with shoulders square to the basket. Against a Rutgers defense that made everything difficult when the teams last met Dec. 14, the improvement was clear.

3. The Terps are piling up Quadrant 1 wins.

The NCAA revamped its postseason evaluation process a few years back — now, in addition to the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings replacing the old RPI system, games are now classified into different quadrants. Currently, Quadrant 1 constitutes home games against top-25 teams in the NET, neutral-site contests against the top 50 and road tilts against the top 75.

With this win over Rutgers (which entered Sunday ranked No. 29 in the NET), Maryland is now 5-10 in Quadrant 1. The record doesn’t look great at first, but it actually primarily showcases how difficult the Terps’ schedule has been — no team in the country has played as many Quad 1 games, which explains Maryland’s No. 1-ranked strength of schedule. And now the Terps are one of just 14 teams to record at least five Quad 1 wins this season; all other such teams are safely in most projected NCAA Tournament fields.

Maryland has also helped its case by going 8-0 in Division I games outside the first quadrant, including its wins against Minnesota (Quad 2) and Nebraska (Quad 3, twice) this week. It will look to keep that trend going with three games left in the regular season, as the Terps face Michigan State (No. 81 NET) at home, Northwestern (No. 88) on the road and Penn State (No. 41) at home. A loss in any of these three contests would be the “worst” of Maryland’s season, but the recent hot streak likely means the Terps’ resume can withstand one loss somewhere.

It’s one thing to look at the schedule and know a team is capable of going on a run. It’s another thing to go out and win multiple consecutive games on the floor. That’s exactly what Maryland has done, and the Terps’ outlook has drastically improved as a result.

“It’s been extremely fun,” Wiggins said. “We told ourselves we were gonna start a streak and we were gonna try to win as many games as we could the rest of the season, and guys believed it.”

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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