Maryland men’s basketball’s run in the Big Ten tournament has ended after a 79-66 loss to top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals March 12. The Terps jumped out to an early double-digit lead, but a Wolverines surge late in the first half and early in the second half turned the tide completely, allowing Michigan to coast to the win and advance to the conference semifinals.
That’s the simple version of the story, at least. But there’s so much more going on here.
Not to sound like Stefon from “Saturday Night Live,” but this game had everything. A double-digit comeback. A stunning poster dunk. A record-breaking individual performance. And the coach of the winning team getting ejected during a commercial break.
It was like a three-act play, except the plot basically ran its course by the end of the second act and the third act was mostly inconsequential mayhem. Let’s just dive in and make sense of it.
Act 1: Maryland Momentum
The Terps, coming off a 68-57 victory against Michigan State March 11, played like they had nothing to lose in the opening minutes of this contest. Maryland made its first three baskets to jump out to a 7-2 lead, and when Darryl Morsell completed a beautiful 3-point play a few minutes later, the Terps were up 15-6. It’s certainly a stark contrast from their 23-11 deficit the day before.
Michigan answered with a 9-2 run to make it a 17-15 game, but then Maryland caught fire. The Terps connected on eight consecutive field goals, including three triples. They led 36-24 and forced Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard to call a timeout with 4:38 left in the half. The Maryland bench, always an Energizer Bunny of a collective, was going nuts. But it’s never gone as crazy as it did for this jaw-dropping Aaron Wiggins dunk.
“He has a gift that not many people have,” fellow junior guard Eric Ayala said. “That shows it, his potential in that aspect.”
In the middle of all this, both teams lost significant players to foul trouble. Hunter Dickinson, Michigan’s First Team All-Conference center and a matchup nightmare for the Terps, was whistled for his second personal foul at the 9:05 mark. But Maryland lost Morsell, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, with 7:50 left in the period. As the dust settled, one of these losses proved to be far more impactful.
Act 2: The Avalanche
The Wolverines came out of that timeout playing like an entirely different team, and they simply took over the game. Michigan closed the first half on a 16-2 run, capped off by a Franz Wagner layup to give the Wolverines a 40-38 lead at halftime. It happened quick — Michigan hit six of its last seven shots in the frame, while Maryland closed 1-of-5.
Morsell’s absence loomed large during that stretch, as Michigan shot 9-of-12 while he was off the floor after starting 7-of-20. But the Wolverines didn’t just take advantage of one-on-one matchups; they got spacing with screens, took advantage of their size and were a force on the glass. And Maryland’s offense simply stopped keeping pace.
“They did a great job of driving the ball … they got downhill, and they made shots, they made some tough ones during that stretch,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said. “It was unfortunate. You would like to have the lead at half. I think that would have been big for our confidence, but they went on a run, we really couldn’t stop it, timeout couldn’t stop it.”
The run didn’t stop in the second half. Michigan opened the period on an 11-4 run, stretching its lead to 51-42. Morsell single-handedly kept the Terps’ offense afloat for a while — he scored Maryland’s first nine points of the second half, and his 3-point play and fast-break layup brought his team back within four. But the Wolverines responded, as Eli Brooks hit a 3, and Wagner hit a 3, and suddenly it was 57-47 with 11:09 to play.
All told, Michigan went on a 33-11 run.
“They found confidence,” Morsell said. When you get a team like that down, you’ve gotta bury ’em. You’ve got your foot on their neck, you’ve gotta leave it on their neck. You can’t give ’em any confidence. And in that first half, they kind of found their confidence, their rhythm, and it just carried over into the second half.”
Act 3: Eruption And Aftermath
While the telecast was in commercial break for the under-12 media timeout, back-and-forth chirping nearly turned into a physical confrontation. Officials had to separate the two sides. Turgeon was issued a technical foul, but Howard was issued a double technical and ejected from the game.
Someone on Twitter suggested that Turgeon yelled at Howard not to hang a Big Ten tournament banner “because your banners come down,” a reference to Michigan’s vacated Final Fours with Howard’s Fab Five. As spicy and exciting as that would be, Turgeon denied making such a comment in his postgame press conference.
“All I said is, ‘Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me,’” Turgeon said. “There’s nothing about a banner. I never backed down; I just stood there and said, ‘Don’t talk to me.’ That’s it.”
Here’s Howard’s version of events.
In Howard’s absence, Michigan had the luxury of turning to Phil Martelli, who spent 24 seasons as the head coach of St. Joseph’s and won 444 games. (For comparison, none of Maryland’s assistants have any college head coaching experience).
Ayala hit one of the two technical free throws after the kerfuffle, and Maryland made the next two baskets to trim the lead to 57-52. But Michigan responded with a Brooks 3, a Brooks layup and a Wagner 3, and suddenly the Wolverines led by 13, their largest advantage of the game, with 7:23 left. Triples from Jairus Hamilton and Ayala — Maryland’s first long balls of the half after an 0-of-11 start — helped the Terps get back within six, but then Michigan went on another 11-2 run to slam the door. The Wolverines made eight of their last 11 shots.
Michigan point guard Mike Smith scored a team-high 18 points, but the headliner was his 15 assists, a Big Ten tournament record. The graduate transfer from Columbia, who has transitioned from a lead option to a setup man this season for a loaded Wolverines team, controlled the game all afternoon. Michigan was plus-23 in his 37 minutes and minus-10 in three minutes without him.
The Wolverines also got 16 points each from Brooks and Wagner, while Chaundee Brown chipped in 10. It wasn’t a productive day for Dickinson (six points, five boards) or Isaiah Livers (scoreless on 0-of-5 shooting), but their frontcourt backups stepped up, as Brandon Johns Jr. and Austin Davis tallied seven and six points, respectively. Michigan shot 51.7 percent as a team and made seven of its nine 3-pointers in the second half.
Ayala led Maryland with 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting, while Morsell finished 7-of-9 for 16 points. Wiggins had 11 points and seven rebounds, but shot just 5-of-15 overall and 1-of-8 from distance. The auxiliary scoring options — Hamilton had nine, Donta Scott seven and Galin Smith four — couldn’t help the Terps keep up. Maryland’s 26-of-54 shooting (48.1 percent) is the team’s best mark in the Big Ten since a 50 percent clip against Wisconsin Dec. 28. A 3-point drought ultimately proved costly, though. Maryland missed 12 straight triples, including its first 11 of the second half, and finished 8-of-26.
After leading Michigan State 27-2 in points off turnovers a day ago, Maryland won the category 15-9 in this contest despite committing 11 and forcing just eight. Michigan, though, made up the difference on the offensive glass. The Wolverines only finished with a 9-6 edge in offensive boards, but they piled up 15 second-chance points and held the Terps without any.
Maryland now turns its attention to next week’s NCAA Tournament; the team will remain in Indianapolis until they’re eliminated (or, hypothetically, national champions). Most projections have the Terps as a No. 10 seed in the bracket after the win against the Spartans, and it’s unlikely that changed much with this result. Perhaps a win would have bumped Maryland up a seed line, and a continued run could have boosted the Terps even further. But there’s also a benefit in some ways to avoiding the 8-9 matchup — thanks largely to not crossing paths with top seeds, No. 10 seeds have made more Sweet 16s than No. 8 and 9 seeds combined since the tournament expanded.
Whatever happens, though, it’s not lost on Maryland that even making the dance is an accomplishment, and one that seemed out of reach not long ago.
“We’ve come a long ways. No one can deny that,” Turgeon said. “To have Selection Sunday and our team’s gonna be called, I think six weeks ago no one would’ve believed that except us coaches and us players. We’ve come a long ways. I’m proud of this group.
“Our name’s gonna pop up, we’ve got a week, maybe eight days to get ready for our next game. I’m more worried about staying COVID-free, just staying in our bubble, but we’ll get better. … We’ll be ready.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox