MINNEAPOLIS — The Maryland men’s basketball team was struggling on the road against Minnesota on Tuesday night when Coach Mark Turgeon made a drastic decision.
The Golden Gophers had led by as many as eight points, and the Terrapins still trailed about six minutes into the second half when Turgeon made an unusual switch.
“We couldn’t guard them. Absolutely could not guard them,” Turgeon said. “… So out of desperation we went zone, and it worked.”
The team practices zone defense “once in a while,” freshman Jalen Smith said, and the Terps have rarely used it in games, but it successfully altered the course of the evening as Maryland caught the Golden Gophers and then pulled away for an 82-67 win.
The victory gives the Terps (13-3, 4-1 Big Ten) their second conference road win of 2019 just eight days into the new year. They earned just one Big Ten road victory in nine tries across two seasons in 2018.
Freshman Ricky Lindo Jr. said Minnesota (12-3, 2-2) seemed to be “really caught off-guard” by the defensive switch. Soon after it was implemented, Lindo suddenly had a remarkable couple of minutes, knocking down a three-pointer and grabbing huge defensive rebounds, and junior Anthony Cowan Jr. continued to hit shots as the Terps surged ahead. Since a loss to Seton Hall on Dec. 22, Maryland has won four straight.
After Cowan struggled early, missing his first three shots, the Terps’ leading scorer settled in and delivered one of the best performances of his three seasons at Maryland, tying his career high with 27 points. Cowan made 6 of 7 from the field in the second half and hit all 10 free throw attempts, helping Maryland turn a six-point halftime deficit into a comfortable win. He scored 11 of Maryland’s first 15 points in the second half to spark the turnaround.
“My teammates kept me confident, told me that they need me to score,” said Cowan, who had just four points in the first half. “Coaches had confidence in me.”
Smith shined throughout, recording a career-high 21 points to go with eight rebounds in a hostile Big Ten environment while looking nothing like an 18-year-old playing his fifth league game. Late in the second half, Smith passed out of a double-team to fellow freshman Eric Ayala, who hit a three to give Maryland a five-point lead with six minutes to go. Turgeon called it the play of the game.
Smith has scored at least 14 points in each of his past five games, a stretch that includes the game-winning shot against then-No. 24 Nebraska last week.
The Golden Gophers had won six straight and were undefeated at home this season before the Terps ended both streaks.
“A road win is always a tough game, especially in the Big Ten. Every team is good,” Smith said. “To get a road win is a huge momentum-builder.”
Maryland’s standout sophomore, Bruno Fernando, notched a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Four Minnesota players scored in double digits, led by Amir Coffey with 16 points.
The Terps started to make up ground with a 9-0 run that began at the 14:18 mark in the second half. A layup by freshman Aaron Wiggins tied the game at 54 with 12:57 to play. Minnesota never led again. Maryland made nearly 70 percent of its shots from the field in the second half, including 6 of 7 from behind the arc, and outscored its hosts 48-27.
“I was just really glad, because in close games we haven’t played the last seven minutes very well,” Turgeon said. “And today we finally did. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Minnesota struggled at the foul line, making just 9 of 23 free throw attempts. The Terps, meanwhile, made 24 of 27.
Entering Tuesday, Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy ranked second in the nation averaging 12.5 rebounds and was the Golden Gophers' second-leading scorer at 14.9. He picked up three fouls in the first half and was held to nine points and five rebounds.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Turgeon said of Murphy. “And probably because of foul trouble, never got the rhythm he needed.”
Turgeon remained committed to using his bench, which was necessary when three key Terps — Wiggins, Ayala and Smith — each picked up two fouls in the first half. Lindo finished with six points and six rebounds in 14 minutes, and fellow freshman Serrel Smith Jr. played a season-high 24 minutes and chipped in four points, three rebounds and two assists.
Lindo has become one of the Terps’ key contributors off the bench. During that two-minute stretch in the second half, Lindo recorded a three-pointer, three rebounds, a block and a steal. Maryland took the lead soon after and only continued climbing ahead from there.
“Our bench has just really grown since we came back from Christmas," Turgeon said, “and it’s really the difference in our team.”
Read more from The Post: