Maryland surged past the Illini after a key defensive adjustment transformed an early hole into a 75-66 victory. The No. 9 Terps (19-4, 9-3 Big Ten) came back from 14 down, overcoming a double-digit deficit to win for the fifth time.
“We’re just confident and rolling,” guard Eric Ayala said. “Everything is clicking right now. … We kind of get out there and it’s just natural.”
Five players scored in double figures for Maryland, led by Anthony Cowan’s 20 points, including a three-pointer with 2:34 to go that gave Maryland a nine-point cushion. By that point, the Illini (16-7, 8-4) finally had run out of answers.
Cowan, who also had seven assists and four rebounds, had a full complement of teammates providing help. Darryl Morsell scored 15 points, Jalen Smith had 11 points and 11 rebounds for his sixth straight double-double, and Aaron Wiggins added 10 points. Ayala, who was held scoreless three days ago against Rutgers, had 12 in a bounce-back performance for the sophomore.
“There’s no good team that doesn’t have players that step up — especially in time of need, especially in a crazy environment like Illinois,” Cowan said.
The Terrapins dug themselves a deep hole early before they switched to a zone defense, combined with a full-court press, and changed the trajectory of the game. The Terps still trailed by double figures when they made the defensive change, yet they went into halftime down just 42-40.
“We kind of lost ourselves for a little bit,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “The zone changed it for us. Got us back in the game. We started to make some shots, gave us confidence, and then we were able to play defense in the second half the way we play defense — play man-to-man, lock in, guard. Guys locked in.”
Maryland’s defense remained taut after intermission, holding the Illini without a field goal for eight minutes to start the half. By the time Illinois’ Andres Feliz made a layup with 11:58 remaining, Maryland had built a 53-46 lead. But an 8-0 run for Illinois cut Maryland’s lead to one with 8:44 to go before Ayala and Morsell answered with timely three-pointers.
When these teams played in December, the Terps overcame a 15-point deficit in the second half to win, 59-58, at Xfinity Center. Cowan hit a tying three-pointer with 21 seconds left and then made the decisive free throw when Illinois fouled with two seconds remaining. In Friday’s rematch, the Illini jumped ahead with ease, and the Terps rallied again.
“We just feel like we’ve been through it, been through a lot in the season,” Cowan said. “But we’ve been down a lot. We just have to bounce back, and that’s what we did tonight, especially in the first half.”
Illinois scored 29 points in the first 10 minutes while the usually solid Maryland defense couldn’t get stops. Maryland’s coaches picked up two technical fouls early in the game — the first when Turgeon became livid after Cowan was called for a charge and the second with a foul called on the bench about four minutes later.
After the early struggles, Turgeon decided to start pressing and defending in a zone at the 8:35 mark in the first half. The Illini “lost their rhythm,” Turgeon said. Illinois immediately turned the ball over thanks to Maryland’s pressure, and the Terps suddenly began forcing their hosts into misses. Wiggins made a three-pointer at the first-half buzzer, trimming the visitors’ deficit to two. Throughout the first half, Turgeon reminded his group the deficit was far from insurmountable. Ayala said his teammates feel comfortable in those situations.
“I don’t think we get rattled when we get down,” Ayala said.
Donta Scott, who scored 11 points in his past four games combined, had seven points during a four-minute stretch, helping fuel Maryland’s first-half climb. Cowan scored 13 points in the first half on 4-for-5 shooting. Smith had a quiet opening 20 minutes, scoring only two points on three shots. But he found his form in the second half when Smith and the others charged ahead.
The game had all the hallmarks of this Terrapins team — the slow start, the rally, crucial defensive stops and clutch shooting. Maryland’s key players made meaningful contributions, and as has been the case so often through 23 games, they didn’t panic in the face of a double-digit deficit. This time, on the road, the victory left the Terps looking down at the rest of the Big Ten.