#9 Maryland makes it past Rutgers, on to Illinois
It wasn’t pretty in the first half for No. 9 Maryland (18-4, 8-4 Big Ten) against Rutgers (16-7, 7-5) Feb. 4. The Terps shot just 24 percent from the field and went into halftime down 25-20 — their second lowest-scoring first half of the season, only better than the 18 they scored before halftime in a loss at Seton Hall.
But thanks to a fifth straight double-double by sophomore forward Jalen ‘Stix’ Smith and a game-high 17 points from senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. Maryland was able to use a strong second half to down the Scarlet Knights 56-51 at Xfinity Center.
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Smith’s fifth consecutive double-double — and 13th of the season — coincided with the Terps’ fifth win in a row. The Baltimore native scored 14 points and ripped down 15 rebounds against Rutgers. He also swatted a career-high six blocks — one game after tying his career-high with five in a win over Iowa.
After failing to score a field goal for the last nine and a half minutes of the first half and allowing Rutgers to go on a 19-4 run, the Terps used a 14-4 run of their own at the start of the second half to regain the lead. The Scarlet Knights would not go away easily and used a few late-game surges to tie the score numerous times in the last few minutes, but Maryland was able to hold Rutgers off and move to 13-0 at home this season.
Three late free throws by Cowan put the Terps up 52-49 with 2:12 left in the game. And while Rutgers’ sophomore center Myles Johnson put home a dunk at the other end immediately following Cowan’s trip to the line, the Scarlet Knights would not score again.
With two of the Big Ten’s best defensive teams squaring off, neither team shot the ball particularly well Tuesday night. There were several lengthy scoreless stretches by both teams and each finished the game just 34 percent from the field. The Scarlet Knights were particularly inept from beyond the arc, shooting just 3-for-17 from three.
Terps’ junior guard Darryl Morsell was also integral for Maryland down the stretch. Morsell scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half and hit 3-of-4 free throws in the final minute to ice the game for Maryland.
Rutgers was without junior guard Jacob Young for this game, as it was announced just about an hour before tip-off that he was suspended for violating team rules. It was later reported that Young was arrested for DWI. With Young’s absence, the Scarlet Knights were missing a player who averages 8.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. But senior forward Akwasi Yeboah picked up the slack for Rutgers and netted a team-high 13 points to go along with seven boards.
While the Terps gave up double-digit scoring efforts to Yeboah and sophomore wing Montez Mathis, who netted 10, Maryland did an excellent job of neutralizing Rutgers’ guards Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker, who combined to shoot 3-for-13 from the field for a total of just six points.
Maryland is now 8-0 against Rutgers since both teams joined the Big Ten back in 2014-15. Next on the docket, the Terps are on to Illinois, a team they are currently tied atop the Big Ten standings with.
The Terps have not played in Champaign, Illinois, since Dec. 3, 2017. Maryland won that game in overtime 92-91. The Terps also defeated the Fighting Illini by one point earlier this season. Feb. 7 will be the rematch between these two Big Ten foes after Maryland came out on top 59-58 in a Dec. 7 contest in College Park.
In that early December game, the Terps were led by 20 points from Cowan, who also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out six assists. It was another game where Maryland trailed at halftime and had to rally back in the second half to pull out a victory.
The Terps successfully held Illinois leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu to nine points in their first meeting, but the talented sophomore guard has been on a tear as of late, scoring in double figures in seven straight contests.
Dosunmu and his 15.8 points per game are supplemented by 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, as well. He also shoots an impressive 48.4 percent from the field.
Head coach Brad Underwood’s 7-foot freshman center Kofi Cockburn gives the Illini an inside-out combination that is hard for most teams to match. However, Maryland is one of the few teams able to do so with its duo of Smith and Cowan.
While Smith and Cowan are just as effective offensive as Dosunmu and Cockburn, they will be giving up a lot of size on the defensive end. The Terps will likely have to throw multiple defenders at both Dosunmu and Cockburn on Friday in order to negate their presence.
That plan worked the first time these two teams met this season, as Illinois’ two leading scorers were both held under 10 points. But teams tend to score easier at home, so repeating that defensive effort will be no easy task for the Terps.
Illinois guards Trent Frazier (10.0 PPG) and Andres Feliz (11.1 PPG) also average double figures for their team and were the key contributors in the first outing against Maryland. Frazier netted 13 points, while Feliz had 11 off the bench.
Stopping a team with four players that average over 10 points per game and that ranks 39th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom is a challenge. But Maryland is a team that is up for it, ranking fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
After struggling on the road to start the season, the Terps have won their last two games away from College Park. Illinois is playing as well as any team in the conference, winning seven of their last eight games, and will certainly have revenge of their mind Friday night.
Winner will sit alone as the first place team in the conference, so expect a strong effort from both squads. For Maryland, the X-factor usually seems to be whether or not they can get a third player like Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, or Morsell to step up and help its two Wooden Award candidates — Cowan and Smith.
But as long as the Terps’ two leaders continue to play at the level they have over the last month, Maryland will be a nightmare for any team it matches up against.
Pat has been covering sports in the DMV area since 2012. He is a former Washington Redskins beat reporter for PressBoxDC.com and has been covering University of Maryland football and basketball recruiting and daily beats for Rivals.com's Terrapin Sports Report since 2013. Pat graduated from College Park with his master's degree in journalism and has received bylines in publications such as USA TODAY Sports, The Philadelphia Inquirer, SB Nation, and Yahoo! Sports. A Philadelphia native, Pat enjoys fishing, golfing, and playing fantasy sports when he's not covering or watching a game.