Instead, the otherwise silent arena showcased the energy, urgency and cohesiveness that oozed from the benches. The Spartans, who struggled early this season, had begun to peak at the ideal time. Each game for Michigan State (13-10, 7-10 Big Ten) is a fight for its NCAA tournament hopes. But the Terps are peaking, too, and they halted the Spartans’ three-game winning streak, which included victories over No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Illinois this week.
After a worrisome start to their Big Ten schedule, the Terps (15-10, 9-9) had fallen out of the NCAA tournament picture and into the lower tiers of the conference standings. But now, cruising on a five-game winning streak, they’re firmly within the projected tournament field, left mostly to wonder what their seed will be with two regular season games remaining.
Maryland rode an elite defensive effort against the Spartans, who made only 33.3 percent of their attempts from the field. The Terps have been consistently solid on that end of the floor, and they have begun to combine their defense with strong offensive outings.
“We knew we had to make a step offensively, and we’ve done that,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “... I didn’t see this coming this quickly in five games, getting to this point. But we’ve made a huge jump, obviously.”
The Terps’ emphatic win featured a well-rounded attack, with junior guard Eric Ayala’s 22 points leading the group. Turgeon called Ayala’s game his best all-around performance in his three seasons at Maryland. Turgeon harps on Ayala’s ability to guard, and the junior said he takes pride in contributing to a team that excels on the defensive end.
Three other Terps reached double figures, including senior guard Darryl Morsell, who was not held back by the shoulder injury he suffered in Maryland’s previous game against Rutgers seven days earlier. Morsell hardly practiced all week, and Turgeon said he lost sleep over whether to play the senior, who was cleared by doctors and committed to play.
“He just kept saying: ‘Coach, don’t worry about me. I’m mentally tough. I’ll be in good enough shape to play,’” Turgeon said. “And he was right.”
Morsell, the team’s defensive leader, scored 11 points and offered the spark that propelled the Terps when they built an 11-0 lead in the first four minutes. He held junior forward Aaron Henry, the Spartans’ leading scorer, to 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting. Morsell ultimately played 34 minutes.
After Maryland’s early burst, Michigan State spent the rest of the game trying to climb back. The Terps still led 35-25 at halftime, and it took until sophomore forward Malik Hall’s free throw with 9:58 left for the Spartans to pull within five.
The Terps suddenly needed some sharp shooting down the stretch, and Hart and fellow sophomore Donta Scott, former AAU teammates from Philadelphia, combined to deliver most of those critical shots in the second half.
Hart, who finished with 10 points, made a contested layup after the Spartans trimmed their deficit to five. Minutes later, he hit a three-pointer with an assist from Scott, extending the lead to 12 points and essentially ending Michigan State’s threat. Turgeon said the quiet sophomore guard has grown in toughness and confidence. With his performance Sunday, Hart reached double figures in back-to-back games for only the second time in his college career.
Scott, meanwhile, played with the physicality the Terps needed. He finished with only seven points, but he recorded eight rebounds and five assists. His three-pointer one possession after Hart’s helped seal the win. Aaron Wiggins, a junior guard who scored 13 points, also made a midrange shot during that stretch when the Terps needed it most.
“Today, when he was locked in, he was a great passer,” Turgeon said of Scott. “I thought where he was the best is boxing out. Because Malik Hall last year, when we played here, he knocked Donta on his butt first two plays of the game. And Donta wasn’t having any of that today.”
Maryland shot 48.8 percent from the field and made 8 of 16 attempts from three-point range. The Terps committed only seven turnovers and finished 23 for 24 from the free throw line.
“I think that’s the winning recipe — making free throws and not turning the ball over,” said Ayala, who made all 13 of his attempts from the foul line. “It’s definitely giving us a shot to be successful and win games.”
The Terps seized control early and with force. Their defensive effort flustered the Spartans, who didn’t score for the first six minutes. The Terps refused to allow easy baskets and mixed that strong defense with their much-improved offense, allowing them to orchestrate one of their best first-half performances of the season.
“That set the tone for the game,” Morsell said. “That’s one of the reasons I played. I know what Michigan State’s about, and I knew we had to come out here today with energy. And we had to hit them first.”