Maryland men’s basketball was on the ropes. The Terps, after dropping their final two games of the regular season, found themselves trailing 23-11 in their Big Ten tournament opener against Michigan State. They hadn’t come back to win from a deficit that large all season. And another loss would put their NCAA Tournament hopes in serious doubt.
But head coach Mark Turgeon’s team has rallied plenty this season, and they did so once again to turn the tide on Thursday, March 11, in Indianapolis. Maryland roared back to thwart the Spartans, 68-57, advancing in the Big Ten tournament and in all likelihood locking in a berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament.
“We’re a bunch of warriors,” junior forward Jairus Hamilton said after the game. “We’ve always had our backs against the wall throughout this year, we’ve had a lot of down periods, but we always find a way to respond. We got that grit, we got that toughness inside of us. So any opportunity, any obstacle that comes our way, we’re gonna take it face-on.
“And that’s what we did today, and we came out with the W.”
The Terps’ defense, which has been the catalyst all season, clamped down after a slow start. After Michigan State opened the game 10-of-15 from the field, it seemed like a lid went on the basket. The Spartans missed 16 of their next 17 shots as Maryland pulled ahead and pulled away — the Terps led 34-30 at halftime, opened up a double-digit lead early in the second half and ultimately led by as many as 19.
Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins carried the offense once again, tallying 21 and 19 points, respectively. The duo struggled from the field in the first half but managed to draw fouls, and their combined 13-of-14 clip at the free-throw line led the Terps to their halftime lead. Both players piled on in the second half, with Wiggins going 5-of-7 in the frame and Ayala pulling down eight of his nine rebounds after intermission.
Maryland shot just 21-of-55 (38.2 percent) from the floor as a team, but clamped down on the other end — Michigan State was at just 31.8 percent before making eight of their last nine attempts in garbage time. The Terps’ biggest edge on this day, though, came in the turnover battle. Maryland forced 18 Spartan giveaways while committing just 10 of its own, and the Terps held a remarkable 27-2 edge in points off those turnovers.
“Our hands were active,” Turgeon said. “We talk about it all the time — Coach [DeAndre] Haynes on my staff is constantly talking about playing with our hands. We’ve got some great length. … We’re not the tallest team, we’re not the biggest team, but we’ve got some length to us, and it was good to get some easy ones.”
Jairus Hamilton poured in nine points on just four field-goal attempts, with his two 3-pointers in the first half helping Maryland stay in the game. Darryl Morsell, the newly-minted Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, notched seven points and seven rebounds. Donta Scott had seven of his own and Hakim Hart chipped in five.
Malik Hall led Michigan State with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Aaron Henry, the Spartans’ top scorer this season, went 5-of-12 for 12 points but committed six turnovers in a frustrating effort.
Maryland’s recent trend of fast starts — the Terps took leads of 11-0, 9-0 and 12-0 in their last three games — was reversed emphatically on this day. Michigan State was on the wrong end of that 11-0 run in the teams’ previous meeting Feb. 28 — a 73-55 Terps win. The Spartans jumped out to a 12-4 advantage this time. That lead became 17-6, and then 23-11, at which point Michigan State was 10-of-15 from the field and Maryland was 2-of-10.
The Terps, though, got back into the game at the foul line. Ayala himself was 8-of-8 at the stripe in the first half, and Maryland went 15-of-16 as a unit. Spartans head coach Tom Izzo was so frustrated at the whistles that he earned a technical foul late in the period — which resulted in two more Ayala free throws. Maryland claimed a 27-26 lead on a Hart three, and Ayala’s triple just before the halftime buzzer stretched the margin to four at halftime.
Then came the second-half avalanche, as Maryland opened the frame on an 8-0 run to make it a 12-point game. Michigan State didn’t score until 13:43 remained in the half; by the time A.J. Hoggard converted that and-one layup, the Spartans had a meager 17 points on 1-of-17 shooting in the previous 16:38 of game time. Maryland kept the pedal down, and the lead was 59-40 by the 7:13 mark.
The Terps eased off the gas late, even emptying the bench in the final minute, and Michigan State made eight of its last nine shots. But the damage was done.
Maryland’s win is its first in the Big Ten tournament since 2016 — with no opportunity last year, it was still coming off three straight one-and-done showings in the event. The No. 8-seed Terps will face top-seeded Michigan at 11:30 a.m. Friday, March 12.
“For us, I don’t really think we thought our backs were against the wall. We had the two losses to end the regular season, but it was just a matter of us bouncing back,” Wiggins said. “We wanted to come out here and show that we’re still one of those top teams in our conference and we’re here to compete. So we came out here and we did a good job getting the win.”
— This year’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament is taking place at Lucas Oil Stadium, which is, well, an NFL stadium. There are two courts set up on the floor, with a large curtain between them and the mostly-empty stands far behind the baskets.
The broadcast might not have looked all that different, but it can certainly be an adjustment for the players. Maryland, though, clearly made whatever adjustments were necessary, and the Terps will be back in action in less than 24 hours.
— Maryland’s late emptying of the bench meant Big Ten tournament minutes for freshmen Aquan Smart, Marcus Dockery and James Graham III. None had played since the Terps’ Feb. 18 win over Nebraska. In an interesting twist, Smart, who normally wears No. 23, took the floor in a nameless No. 54 jersey; as of this writing, no reason has been given for the change.
— Reese Mona, who’s supplanted Smart for that “eighth man” spot in what had become a seven-man rotation, has now delivered two quietly strong performances in a row. He was a plus-15 in 12 minutes against Penn State, a game the Terps lost by five. Maryland was plus-8 in his seven first-half minutes against the Spartans in this one; he finished as a plus-4. Mona hasn’t been an offensive threat, as evidenced by a pair of ugly free-throw misses in the second half. But he moves the ball well on offense and gets in the right spots on defense, bringing better out of his teammates.
“He really flipped [the defense]. He went in there and just guarded,” Turgeon said. “We weren’t great offensively during that stretch, but Reese’s toughness, his defense was just incredible during that stretch, and I think that rubbed off on a lot of guys out there.”
— Bracketology is an inexact science, but the bracket matrix had Maryland as a No. 11 seed entering this week, essentially giving the Terps one of those “Last Four Byes.” ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Maryland just above that, as the lowest No. 10 seed entering Thursday. This isn’t a full consensus — Fox Sports’ Mike DeCourcey had the Terps among the “Last Four In,” and that’s what’s referenced on Big Ten Network broadcasts — but most, including Turgeon, believed Maryland would be an NCAA Tournament team no matter what happened against the Spartans.
Still, closing with three straight losses and falling to 14-13 in Division I games would have given Terps fans plenty of reason to worry. That’s done now. After a roller coaster of a season, Maryland will dance next week.
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