A trio of second-year players boosted the Terps, providing a glimpse of the growth of a team that will lean all season on its sophomore core. As he’s bound to do many times this year, big man Jalen Smith led the Terps with 19 points and added 11 rebounds. Aaron Wiggins, praised as one of the players who took a massive leap in the offseason, notched his first career double-double, finishing with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Eric Ayala, who plays with poise and a newfound sense of physicality, added 13 points.
“It makes a really big difference for our team having so many guys with that experience, being able to step up, be patient, still be calm, even when we’re down in the first half,” said Wiggins, whose solid outing came after shooting 0-for-6 from three in the opener. “We got their best shot out of the gate.”
After a scoreless first half, senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. scored all of his 14 points in the second. Although Maryland has touted its depth, the Terps primarily called upon six players — five returners and freshman Donta Scott — to fend off Rhode Island.
“We were panicking a little bit, let’s just be real,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “... There was a lot of energy in the building, and maybe that had a little bit to do with it. I tried to play a lot of guys early, some of our young guys just weren’t quite ready for the pace of that game and the physicality of that game. So we were just out of sync.”
In this matchup, the Terps faced “a step up in competition,” as Turgeon called it Friday. He was right; the Rams posed challenges. Surely they weren’t as significant as some of the ones Maryland will run into this winter, but Maryland for a while looked less like a title contender and more like a squad with some problems to solve.
“They were ready to go and we weren’t,” Turgeon said after the game. “They kind of punched us in the face.”
It’s early, though: Two games have been played, with dozens to go. There’s reassurance in how the Terps worked through a deficit, which was as large as 12, and found a way to win handily.
During its early struggles, Maryland played without much rhythm and turned the ball over far too often. Maryland didn’t take its first lead until Scott made a three-pointer with just more than a minute to go in the first half. The Terps made eight of their last 11 shots of the half while Rhode Island hit just two of its last 10 attempts. The arena finally came alive as Maryland went on a 10-0 run during this stretch.
After the late first-half surge, Turgeon said he and his group felt confident they would win, For the final 25 minutes of play, Maryland played to its ability.
Darryl Morsell, a junior who has started most games in his college career but came off the bench in Tuesday’s season-opening win against Holy Cross, rejoined the starting lineup against the Rams. Turgeon said before the game that he planned to start Morsell because of the respect he has for the Rams’ guards, a group led by Jeff Dowtin, who scored 14 points.
Usually tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player, Morsell rarely accumulates impressive statistics. But since the beginning of March, Morsell had averaged 12.8 points while totaling 20 assists and only three turnovers during that six-game stretch entering Saturday.
In the first 10 minutes against the Rams, Morsell turned the ball over three times, twice by traveling. Following the first traveling call, Morsell and Rhode Island guard Tyrese Martin received technical fouls after a skirmish. Morsell finished with a team-high five turnovers, and his teammates struggled to take care of the ball, too.
“Guys we’re trying to do too much — trying to dribble in a crowd instead of just passing the ball,” Turgeon said. “And we really pass the ball well. We just didn’t show that tonight.”
Maryland had an abysmal start, racking up 12 turnovers through 22 possessions. In the opener, the Terps had just eight in the entire game, a short-lived bright spot after the same problem plagued them last year. Rhode Island had 18 turnovers, 11 of which came in the first half, which helped keep Maryland from falling into a deeper hole.
Freshman forward Makhi Mitchell earned his first college start, the second of Turgeon’s two swaps in the lineup from the opener. But Mitchell picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and headed to the bench soon after. Mitchell, who didn’t return in the first half and played just one minute in the second, finished with four fouls and two points.
The Rams shot 20.6 percent in the second half as Maryland’s strong defensive effort helped tilt the game in the Terps’ favor. The game started poorly, but the Terps still left with a win and an undefeated record, another step forward during a season in which much is expected.