Maryland’s 73-57 win over Northwestern on Saturday at Xfinity Center did not fully alleviate the disappointment of this turbulent season, nor did it answer any of the questions facing the program’s future. It wasn’t going to save Maryland’s thin NCAA tournament hopes. This was the Terrapins handling their business against the Wildcats, whose underachievement this winter has been one of the bullet points of the Big Ten’s mediocre campaign.
So the Terps weren’t exactly mobbing each other as they got back to the locker room. “We can’t get too high,” said sophomore guard Kevin Huerter, who scored 22 points. “It is a good feeling because it finally feels like we put together a complete game.”
More than anything, Saturday was a temporary reprieve. Maryland (17-10, 6-8 Big Ten) never trailed. The offense was crisp. The defensive effort was finally thorough. And the rotation was bolstered by the return of senior center Michal Cekovsky after he missed three games with a heel injury.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said, “but we continue to fight.”
Huerter was hard-pressed to remember the last time his team put forth a consistent performance for 40 minutes. It certainly hadn’t been in Big Ten play, including in a 74-70 loss at Penn State three nights earlier, when halfhearted defensive effort doomed the Terrapins in their fourth loss in five games.
As the players sat in a darkened film room Friday, Turgeon pointed out countless mistakes. At one point, he yelled at Dion Wiley, who had six points but no other stats other than a personal foul in 23 minutes. “At least turn the damn ball over. Do something to get in the stat sheet,” Turgeon told him, trying to spark something in the redshirt junior before Saturday’s game.
Wiley’s inconsistency and struggles with injuries have been issues all season, but he responded to Turgeon’s challenge Saturday with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
He again was part of Maryland’s four-guard starting lineup and hit an early three-pointer to help the offense catch fire. The Terrapins hit 12 of their first 18 shots and seven of their first 10 three-point attempts to build a 16-point lead in the first half. After Northwestern (15-11, 6-7) made a run to cut that deficit to five, Huerter hit an off-balance runner in the lane in the final seconds of the first half to push the lead to 36-29.
When the players got back to the locker room, they opted not to talk about playing to protect their lead. They had done exactly that before surrendering a 13-point halftime lead at home against Michigan State in January and did it again before nearly blowing a 10-point lead at the break in a win over Wisconsin last week.
“Players-wise, it was just, ‘Let’s not talk about giving up leads. Let’s just go out there and play,’ ” Huerter said.
That seems as if it will be this team’s mentality with four games remaining in the regular season, and it was at least reflected in the effort in the second half. Maryland didn’t take plays off on defense — it held Northwestern senior guard Bryant McIntosh scoreless for the first time in his career and limited the Wildcats overall to 33.3 percent shooting from the field — and Turgeon’s small-ball lineup thrived with a simple passing-game offense. The system was installed midway through the year, Huerter explained, and is predicated upon screening. At times this season, it has been shut down. On Saturday, as Maryland hit 27 of 51 shots from the field (52.9 percent, with 16 assists), it looked sharply efficient.
Each time Northwestern pulled within single digits in the second half, Maryland answered with patience and ball movement. That included a three-pointer off a pick and roll by Anthony Cowan Jr. (16 points) that pushed the lead back to 10 with 11:38 remaining. After the Wildcats again pulled within eight, they swarmed Cowan, who dumped off an assist to freshman Darryl Morsell (14 points, nine rebounds) for a jumper with 9:17 left.
“Teams can’t really scout it. It’s just movement. It’s just being a basketball player,” Huerter said of the offense.
Even as Maryland pulled away late in the second half, anxiety still lingered in the building. This is a team that has lost seven games by six points or less this season, after all, and it has blown chances to buffer its postseason résumé by melting down late in multiple games.
“Even at the two-minute mark, I’m still thinking they might go on a run,” Cowan said, though his team led by 18 at that point Saturday. Maryland’s players did not coast. Cowan and Huerter still looked for their shots. Wiley boxed out. Cekovsky played out his 15 minutes. Turgeon did not pull his starters, leaving nothing to chance. It seemed to be too late for such a promising and complete showing, but there’s nothing left to lose.
“It was a good home win,” Huerter said. “I don’t think we can call it a signature win yet.”
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