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Defense, Julian Reese lift Maryland men’s basketball out of doldrums and to 63-46 win at Rutgers

Maryland men’s basketball might have slightly resuscitated what had been a season on life support.

With only one victory in February, the Terps raced to a 12-point advantage at halftime that ballooned to 21 in the second half before securing a 63-46 victory over host Rutgers on Sunday afternoon at Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Maryland (15-13, 7-10 Big Ten) ended a two-game skid and won for the first time since Feb. 14 when the team rallied for a 78-66 victory over Iowa. More importantly, the team moved out of the conference’s basement, where the four worst teams have to play on the dreaded first day of the Big Ten Tournament, which runs March 13 to 17 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Terps are a half-game better than the Scarlet Knights (14-13, 6-10) and Indiana (14-13, 6-10), and ahead of Ohio State (15-12, 5-11) and Michigan (8-19, 3-13).

“We didn’t practice very good on Friday, and I got on them yesterday pretty hard because they’ve worked so hard and they practice really hard, and we’ve been in every game,” Maryland men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard told the team’s radio broadcast crew after the game. “So I was like, we’re not going to have a defeatist attitude. That’s not this program, that’s not what we’re about, that’s not what you guys are about. And they responded really well.”

Junior power forward Julian Reese, a Randallstown native and St. Frances graduate, scored 15 of his game-high 20 points in the second half and added six rebounds and two blocks. Fifth-year senior point guard Jahmir Young racked up 12 points, nine assists and four rebounds; senior small forward Jordan Geronimo collected his first double-double with Maryland since transferring from Indiana with 11 points and 11 rebounds (six offensive); and fifth-year senior small forward Donta Scott added 11 points and seven rebounds.

The Terps avoided getting swept by Rutgers for the first time in program history after losing to the Scarlet Knights, 56-53, on Feb. 6 at Xfinity Center in College Park. Meanwhile, Rutgers dropped its third game in a row after opening the month with four straight victories.

Senior small forward Aundre Hyatt came off the bench to lead Rutgers with 13 points, and senior center Clifford Omoruyi chipped in five points, four rebounds and three blocks, with the latter helping him move into seventh place on the school’s list for single-season blocks with 85.

Here are three observations from Sunday afternoon’s win.

Maryland dared Rutgers to score from the outside

Entering the game, the Scarlet Knights ranked last among 14 Big Ten teams in shooting percentage at .392 and 13th in 3-point efficiency at .294.

That was music to the ears of the Terps and coach Kevin Willard, who drew up a zone defense that held Rutgers to a season-low-tying output. Maryland limited the Scarlet Knights to 37% from the floor (17 of 46) and 18.2% behind the 3-point line (2 of 11) in surrendering the fewest points in a game this winter.

The Terps dialed up their defense against redshirt junior point guard Jeremiah Williams and senior power forward Mawot Mag, who combined for 29 points in Rutgers’ win in College Park. Mag scored only two points on 1-for-5 shooting and picked up a technical foul, and Williams scored 6 points on 3-for-9 shooting while collecting four fouls.

The Terps shut out Rutgers for an 8:15 span, bridging the first and second halves until sophomore shooting guard Derek Simpson canned a pair of free throws with 17:54 remaining. And Maryland capitalized by embarking upon a 15-0 run for a 35-18 advantage.

The Terps defense was particularly dominant in the first half. They held the Scarlet Knights to 31.6% shooting (6 of 19) and 16.7% from 3-point range (1 of 6) and shut them out for the final 6:09 of the period. That opened the door for Maryland to sprint to a 30-18 advantage by halftime.

“Just watching the first five minutes, the way that we were defending and the way we were passing the basketball, I just knew that we were going to dominate this game,” Willard said. “I thought our tone defensively, I think it kind of surprised them a little bit.”

As laborious as the season has been for the Terps, they have been able to lean on a defense that led the conference in points allowed per game at 65. So facing a Scarlet Knights offense that has struggled to generate production seemed a match made in heaven for Maryland.

Maryland made just enough 3-pointers

As futile as Rutgers was from beyond the arc, the Terps weren’t exponentially better. But they made their few contributions count.

Maryland finished the game converting 31.6% of its 3-point attempts (6 of 19). That might not sound otherworldly, but at least they were timely.

In the first half, the Terps made just one of their first eight 3-point shots. But then, consecutive 3-pointers in a 2:03 stretch by Geronimo, Young and Scott turned a 20-18 lead into a 29-18 cushion.

When asked by the radio broadcast crew about Rutgers’ focus on keeping Young out of the lane, Scott said that strategy encouraged Maryland to shoot from the perimeter.

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“That opened up a lot for other guys to knock down shots,” said Scott, who disclosed he is dealing with a sprained MCL in his left knee, suffered before an 85-80 loss to then-No. 14 Illinois on Feb. 17. “JG [Geronimo] hit one, Jamie hit one, and a couple of those guys just knocked down shots, and luckily, I was there to pick up the slack and just knock down some more shots.”

Scott and Young were the only Maryland players to connect on multiple 3-pointers as Scott drained 3 of 6 and Young went 2-for-5. That turned out to be plenty for the Terps’ offense.

Maryland’s sharing was caring

The Terps’ success on offense was fueled by their decisions to find the right shots, not necessarily the first ones.

Of the offense’s 21 buckets, Maryland assisted on 15 of them. That marked the team’s highest number of assists since it registered 16 in a 73-51 pummeling of Nebraska on Jan. 27.

While Young didn’t light up the stat sheet in points, he dished out nine assists, which tied his career high and are the most he’s had in a Maryland uniform. And freshman DeShawn Harris-Smith finished with three assists, which was two short of the career best he has compiled three times this season.

The Terps are now 9-2 in games in which more than half of their made baskets were assisted. They might need more showings like that to make some waves in next month’s Big Ten Tournament.

Northwestern at Maryland

Wednesday, 7 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM