Maryland men’s basketball wasted no time making a statement on Sunday, Feb. 28. The Terps, riding a four-game winning streak and coming off a week of rest, smothered visiting Michigan State from the opening tip. The defense was swarming, and the offense was flowing, and Maryland went up 11-0 and never looked back.

The Terps rolled past the Spartans, 73-55, leading wire-to-wire and locking down their fifth consecutive victory. Maryland moved to 15-10 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten, strengthening their grip on an eventual NCAA Tournament spot.

Michigan State, on a late-season surge of its own, entered with wins against No. 5 Illinois and No. 4 Ohio State earlier this week. But the Spartans stood no chance against Maryland’s defense on this day. Six straight misses and a scoreless opening 6:09 set the tone. At the final buzzer, Michigan State was just 19-of-57 (33.3 percent) from the floor and 8-of-28 (28.6 percent) from 3-point range. The Terps’ defense kept the Spartans out of transition and forced one difficult shot after another.

On the other end, Maryland knocked down 21 of 43 field goals (48.8 percent), 8 of 16 triples and 23 of 24 free throws. The Terps started 5-of-6 from distance to open up the lead, then shot 16-of-17 at the charity stripe in the second half to keep Michigan State at a distance. Leading scorer Eric Ayala went 13-of-13 at the foul line himself en route to a game-high 22 points.

“Our defense was shot out of a cannon at the start of the game, and we were really good defensively probably for 36 minutes today,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We’ve had some really good [all-around performances]. I just think offensively we’ve gotten a lot better.”

Ayala led a well-rounded showing from the entirety of Maryland’s seven-man rotation, which included four players scoring in double figures. Aaron Wiggins notched 13 points and six rebounds. Darryl Morsell, who didn’t practice all week due to a shoulder injury, went 4-of-5 from the field and finished with 11 points. Hakim Hart shot 4-of-6 and came up with timely plays in a 10-point performance.

The Terps’ frontcourt weapons made their impact in a variety of ways. Donta Scott didn’t score any of his seven points until 6:06 remained in the game, but the sophomore forward was a factor all night, posting a team-high eight rebounds and five assists. Jairus Hamilton knocked down both of his 3-point attempts to finish with six points. Galin Smith scored four points and blocked two shots on the other end.

Michigan State, despite trailing the entire game, was within striking distance most of the afternoon thanks to its offensive rebounding, as the Spartans grabbed 13 of their own misses and led 12-3 in second-chance points. Maryland more than made up that difference with its efficiency, both on free throws and 3-pointers. The Terps also committed just seven turnovers (forcing eight) and led 9-5 in points off giveaways.

Joshua Langford led the Spartans with 12 points but shot just 3-of-13. Aaron Henry went 4-of-16 to finish with 11 points. Joey Hauser chipped in 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting with eight rebounds off the bench, while Gabe Brown and Malik Hall added seven points each.

Morsell opened the scoring with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws, then Hart and Wiggins drained triples to stretch the lead to 11-0 less than four minutes in. Michigan State jumped back into the game and made it 14-7, but never got closer than seven points in the first half. The Terps took a 35-25 lead into halftime; they entered the locker room shooting 6-of-10 from beyond the arc while the Spartans were 4-of-15.

Michigan State made multiple runs at the lead in the second half, but the Terps had an answer each time. With the Spartans down seven and Aaron Henry driving to the rim, Smith rose up to block the shot, and Maryland turned around and scored on a Hart dunk in transition. Michigan State eventually did get within five at 49-44, but Hart and Wiggins scored on the Terps’ next two possessions in response. A few minutes later, after a Scott hook shot and Hart straight-on three, the lead was suddenly 58-46 with 5:13 remaining.

From there, the Terps cruised down the stretch as Michigan State seemed to run out of gas (understandable for a team coming off two hard-fought, top-five victories this week). The Spartans shot just 2-of-11 during the final 7:56, and Maryland pulled away by hitting five straight shots on the other end, none louder than this Aaron Wiggins dunk.

The emphatic win brings Maryland closer to becoming an NCAA Tournament lock, although it would behoove the Terps to play well in their final two games — at 7-14 Northwestern on March 3 and against 8-13 Penn State on March 7. Maryland has been in the bubble conversation seemingly all season, but the Terps didn’t look like a bubble team Sunday. They looked like a team poised to make a run in March.

“I feel like our confidence level is at an all-time high right now,” Hart said. “We’ve just got to keep it that way.”

THE NOTEBOOK

1. Morsell has battled shoulder issues sporadically this season and left last weekend’s Rutgers game twice grabbing his right shoulder. He didn’t practice all week and was a game-time decision. Anyone who knows the senior, though, fully expected him to be on the floor. And his nine first-half points — and 4-of-5 shooting day overall, with his customary lockdown defense — silenced any doubts about whether he made the right decision.

“Anything we’re doing, I know Darryl’s gonna be ready,” Ayala said. “We could be at practice, we could be about to go bowl or something, Darryl’s gonna be ready. He’s so special. … I knew we needed him to be on the floor to win the game, he does so many things for us on the court.”

2. Maryland surpassed 70 points for the third time in five games after not reaching the threshold in a Big Ten game between Dec. 28 and Feb. 14. And these 73 points came in just 59 possessions, marking the Terps’ best per-possession scoring performance in conference play all season. On the other end, Maryland has now held eight of its last 10 opponents to less than a point per possession. That’s how the Terps have climbed from No. 52 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin in mid-January to No. 26 after this win.

“We figured out the defense first and we got that going … but then we knew we had to make a step offensively, and we’ve done that,” Turgeon said.

3. With an NCAA Tournament berth juuuuust about locked up — missing out is a worst-case scenario it’s better not to think about right now — Maryland can turn its focus to postseason seeding. The Terps had climbed to a No. 9 seed in the bracket matrix entering this weekend, and could sneak even higher if they stay hot. They’re also tied with Rutgers for seventh in the Big Ten standings, and have as favorable a schedule to close the regular season as anyone in the conference.

This sort of run was always possible due to the frontloaded nature of Maryland’s Big Ten schedule, but it certainly seemed improbable, as the Terps simply never looked like a postseason team with any consistency. They have that look now, and they have it at the perfect time.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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