Maryland (7-6, 2-5 Big Ten) trailed 61-59 with less than two minutes to play, but sophomore guard Hakim Hart nailed a three-pointer with 1:20 to go to give the Terps a lead they would not relinquish. Hart committed a foul on Illinois’ next possession, but Da’Monte Williams missed both free throws. Senior guard Darryl Morsell made a driving basket with 33 seconds to go, extending the Terrapins’ advantage to three points and capping his excellent evening.
After sophomore forward Donta Scott missed the front end of a one-and-one, Illinois had a chance to tie the score on its final possession, but Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu missed his three-point attempt, and the Terps held on.
“We came in locked in, paid real attention to the scouting report, and we believed,” said Morsell, who finished with a career-high 19 points. “I think believing is the biggest thing. And we all believed coming into this building, even without [injured guard] Eric [Ayala], that we had enough to get it done.”
The Terps had an array of players leading their effort against the Fighting Illini (9-4, 5-2). Morsell’s output came after he played poorly in Maryland’s previous game after he returned from a fractured bone in his face. Morsell was “a mess against Iowa” last week, Coach Mark Turgeon said, and Maryland’s struggles without Morsell prove his importance.
“He’s the heart of this team,” Turgeon said. “He’s everything for us.”
Scott scored 16 points to go with eight rebounds, and junior guard Aaron Wiggins finished with 12 points. Most importantly, the Terps played well as a group when the outcome of the game depended on their performance in the final minutes.
Dosunmu dominated in the second half, scoring 16 of his 23 points in the final 20 minutes of play to keep the Terps from pulling ahead sooner. Dosunmu combined with 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn, who scored 21 points and gave Maryland trouble in the first half. But the Terps managed to slow Cockburn’s production as the game progressed. Maryland has struggled against formidable forwards this season, but Maryland senior forward Galin Smith defended well against Cockburn, who attempted only two shots in the second half.
“He battled and he battled and he battled,” Turgeon said of Smith, adding that center Chol Marial also gave Maryland solid minutes.
Ayala, a junior who had started every game this season, couldn’t play because of a groin injury. Ayala leads Maryland in scoring at 14.0 points per game, and his absence left the Terps with a significant void to fill. Turgeon settled on a starting lineup without a true point guard, relying on Wiggins, Hart and Morsell as the three guards. All five of Maryland’s starters — those three guards, plus Scott and Smith — played more than 27 minutes. Hart was the primary ballhandler throughout the game and played well in that role.
“When you lose somebody like [Ayala], everybody has to step up on a certain degree,” Wiggins said, “whether that be energy, whether that be guys on the bench, whether that means scoring on offense, rebounding or making plays.”
The Illini grabbed a seven-point lead early in the first half, but Maryland answered with a 9-0 run. Maryland’s lead was short-lived, but the Terps refused to let Illinois take control, even as Cockburn presented a significant challenge in the paint. Maryland held Dosunmu to 2-for-11 shooting in the first half, and the Terps played well enough offensively to keep the Illini from surging ahead. After a Maryland timeout, Scott hit a three-pointer on the final possession before halftime, a welcome boost that sent Maryland to the locker room facing only a 34-32 deficit.
The Terps started the second half making six straight shots, four of which came from Morsell. The Terps retook the lead, but Dosunmu responded with a surge of scoring with nine points in about two minutes. Neither team led by more than five points during the second half.
Maryland’s game against Illinois ended a stretch of about two weeks packed with difficult opponents. The Terps faced a team ranked in the top 16 in four of those six games. The Terps’ only previous win during this span came on the road against No. 6 Wisconsin, and Maryland had lost three straight games until this much-needed victory that required poise through the final possessions.
“Every time before the game, every timeout, the last timeout we had, I’m like, ‘We’ve got some guys, and we’re built for this,’ ” Morsell said. “That’s something we live by.”