Maryland men’s basketball goes wire-to-wire in 65-51 win over Rutgers in Big Ten Tournament first round

Maryland men’s basketball kept alive some hope.

In a season that began with much promise before getting bogged down, the Terps found a way to inject a little adrenaline by beating Rutgers, 65-51, in a Big Ten Tournament first-round game Wednesday night at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

The win means Maryland (16-16) will avoid the ignominy of matching the 15-17 overall record by the 2021-22 squad. But barring what could only be viewed as a miraculous run, the team will miss the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the past five seasons.

That scenario is quite a departure from last winter, when the Terps went 22-13 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA postseason before losing to then-overall No. 1 seed Alabama, making Kevin Willard the first coach in school history to guide the program to the NCAA Tournament in his debut.

At least for another day, the Terps, the No. 12 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, don’t have to answer questions about the offseason. They can instead take solace in knowing that their win against the No. 13 seed Scarlet Knights ended a three-game losing skid and represented only their third victory in the past 11 games when the calendar turned from January to February.

Fifth-year senior small forward Donta Scott scored a team-high 16 points and grabbed six rebounds, and fifth-year senior point guard Jahmir Young amassed 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for Maryland. The team also welcomed back junior power forward Julian Reese, the Randallstown native and St. Frances graduate who accounted for 12 points, six rebounds and three assists after sitting out Sunday’s 85-69 setback at Penn State in the regular-season finale because of an ankle injury.

“Having him back, he’s one of the best centers in the country,” Willard said of Reese. “So when you have that scoring threat, that passing threat, and defensively he helps us, and he locks down in so many different ways, it was huge.”

The Terps earned a second-round meeting with No. 5 seed Wisconsin (19-12) on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. If there was one note of discouragement, backup senior point guard Jahari Long appeared to suffer a serious right knee injury with 50.5 seconds left in the game, and Willard said he did not have an update on Long’s status.

Freshman shooting guard Gavin Griffiths paced the Scarlet Knights (15-17) with 16 points and three rebounds, and senior small forward Aundre Hyatt came off the bench to provide 13 points, six rebounds and three steals. But Rutgers ended its season by dropping its last four games and seven of its last eight.

Here are three observations from Wednesday’s game.

A fast start was exactly what Maryland’s struggling offense needed.

The Terps entered the tournament ranked 13th of 14 Big Ten teams in scoring at 69.6 points per game. So buckets are a rare commodity.

That made Maryland’s 17-3 opening run in the first five minutes of the game so refreshing. In fact, the offense built an 11-0 advantage before Griffiths’ 3-pointer three minutes into the first half ended Rutgers’ drought.

Willard said the team’s early eruption had a visible impact on the players’ body language.

“It just relaxes them and it kind of gives them a chance to understand, ‘All right, we’re going to go play defense, we’re going to get stops, and now we’re scoring,’” he said. “Psychologically, it’s just a big difference.”

The Terps converted six of their first eight shots from the field, including four of their first five from 3-point range. Scott sank a 3-pointer, but what was particularly invigorating was watching freshman small forward Jamie Kaiser Jr. nail his first two long-distance attempts and freshman shooting guard DeShawn Harris-Smith hit one.

“It definitely opens up for Ju to go to work down there and driving lanes for DeShawn and Jahmir,” said Kaiser, who compiled 11 points, four steals and three rebounds in his first start since Feb. 17 against Illinois. “It just helped the team.”

Maryland finished the game shooting 43.1% against a Scarlet Knights defense that ranked second in the Big Ten, allowing opponents to connect on just 40.7% of their attempts. That’s an optimistic sign for a team that has labored to find the net.

Maryland’s offense was fueled by a lightly-used asset — the fastbreak.

As well as the Terps have played defense this season (more on that later), they haven’t demonstrated a propensity for turning stops into instant offense.

That changed Wednesday when Maryland outscored Rutgers, 19-8, in fastbreak points. The team was especially effective in the first half when it owned a 10-2 advantage in that department.

The 19 fastbreak points are the most by the Terps this winter since a 103-76 pummeling of Rider on Nov. 28 was buoyed by 23 fastbreak points. They also assisted on 17 of 22 field goals, their most assists in a game since recording 20 in a 105-65 romp over Alcorn State.

“Just continuing to share the ball and find the open man,” Young said of the offense’s formula. “It started on defense, being able to limit them to one shot and get out in transition where we were having success. So just trying to limit them to one shot so that we could get out and run.”

Maryland could use similar numbers against a Wisconsin defense that ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten in opponents’ shooting percentage (.461).

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Maryland’s defense was just as dominant.

The Terps’ reputation as the conference’s stingiest team was further burnished Wednesday.

Maryland, which had given up 65.7 points per game in the regular season, allowed only 51 points to Rutgers. Of course it helped that the Scarlet Knights have even had more difficulty than the Terps when it comes to scoring (the former ranked last in the Big Ten at only 65.8 points per game).

Rutgers, which also ranked last in shooting percentage (.392), was limited to 31.1% (19 of 61) by Maryland and 23.8% (5 of 21) behind the 3-point line. The Terps’ defense held the Scarlet Knights scoreless for stretches of 3:00, 2:04, 4:26 and 3:32 in the first half and 2:11, 3:22 and 3:15 in the second half.

“Just being able to be connected defensively and limiting them to 3-point shots,” Young said. “They’re not the greatest shooting team. So being able to stay locked, stay packed in on the defensive end and being in gaps was huge, and they had a hard time with that.”

And the Terps excelled at keeping Rutgers’ possessions limited to one-and-done situations. They outrebounded the Scarlet Knights, 36-23, on the defensive glass, which contributed to a 45-33 advantage in overall rebounds.

“I wanted to get off to a fast start defensively and get some stops,” Willard said. “We got two deflections, we got a fastbreak layup, and then we got an open 3 off a turnover. For me, when we’ve been good, it’s been on the defensive end. We had open shots all night. Just unfortunately, we struggled to shoot the basketball at times. But our defense has kept us in every game.”

The Terps will face a tougher test in a Wisconsin offense that ranks sixth in the league in field goal percentage (.462) and eighth in scoring (74.4). The Badgers won the teams’ only meeting, 74-70, on Feb. 20, but maybe Maryland can craft a plan to limit them.

Big Ten Tournament second round

Maryland vs. Wisconsin

At Target Center, Minneapolis

Thursday, 2:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM