EVANSTON, Ill. — As unpredictable and inconsistent as Coach Mark Turgeon says his young Maryland basketball team can be at times, a generic formula has taken shape over its five-game non-conference winning streak. Ride the hot hands in the starting lineup, win the rebounding battle and dominate with depth.
All three came together for these Terrapins during a 77-57 win over Northwestern Tuesday night during the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Alex Len and Dez Wells combined for 36 electric points. Maryland, which entered ranked second nationally in rebounding margin, outrebounded the Wildcats 47 to 19. And the bench, which Turgeon runs five deep with relentless consistency, outscored their foils, 23-7, playing a key second-half role as the Terps pulled away.
“We’ve got a good team,” Turgeon said. “We haven’t played like it all year until tonight. We’ve got good players. Good thing is, we’ve got the luxury to find the right guys to plug in, instead of having to go with the same six or seven.”
There may come a time when Len and Wells move onto the greener, more financially lucrative pastures of the NBA, but they’ve quickly developed into the definitive on-court leaders for the Terps. Wells fires up his teammates and directs them during pregame huddles. Len speaks greater volumes with his low-post dominance.
Succeeding away from home, Turgeon said earlier this week, derives from confidence and poise, something the Terps needed to reverse a 1-8 road record in 2011-12. Those intangibles — and plenty of points too — arrived in droves in the second half from Len and Wells. With Maryland up 32-30, Len unleashed arguably his best sequence of the season, draining a feathery jumper, throwing down a two-handed baseline dunk, stuffing Eastern European counterpart Alex Olah on the other end and hitting an and-one that had Len pounding his chest in front of a celebrating Maryland bench.
After Len was subbed out after a Northwestern timeout, Wells took his turn on the catwalk, sticking a three-pointer and hitting a transition layup that ballooned the lead to 13 points. The Wildcats never approached single digits again as the Terps neared a 20-point margin, buoyed by two Logan Aronhalt three-pointers against Northwestern’s 1-3-1 pressure zone.
“We’ve got so many good players,” Aronhalt said. “Someone’s bound to have a good night every single night. Someone’s going to go off. Alex was playing well, Dez started playing well, then they went to the zone and things opened up for me. We do such a good job of playing off each other.”
The nationally televised game served as a precursor Maryland’s recently announced move to the Big Ten, an appetizer of sorts for conference play beginning in 2014. But these Terrapins knew Tuesday had larger implications for the present. With a soft non-conference schedule loaded with Comcast Center matchups and two neutral-site games, the mid-week Chicago trip was Maryland’s sole true road test before ACC play, an opportunity to make a statement on hostile hardwood.
Wells shot 9 of 11 from the field for 23 points, a career-high including his freshman season at Xavier, while Len had his first double-double since the season opener against Kentucky, with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Aronhalt continued to up his value as a gunner off the bench, draining three three-pointers, while Nick Faust chipped in 10 points.
“Everyone was jumping around, yelling, it was great,” Len said of the locker room mood. “Everyone was hyped. This win was good for us. I think it’s going to get us going.”
Despite outrebounding Northwestern by 16 in the first half, Maryland entered the break leading just 28-26, thanks in large part to another subpar shooting performance from outside and 11 turnovers.
But rather than let a pesky Northwestern bunch hang around, the Terps took it to the Wildcats down low, using agility and pinpoint passing to break through the defense, leading to wide-open layups and putbacks. Turgeon made two major adjustments to Maryland’s fast break after halftime, imploring his team to return to its inside-out principles and pump entry looks inside to Len and Padgett.
With Northwestern shooting just 6 of 25 from three-point range and the Wildcats generally uninterested in crashing the offensive boards, Maryland limited second-chance looks, leading to a blowout that had fans filing for early exits and Maryland’s starters receiving head-rubs by the bench, congratulating a win that meant far more for the current season to these Terps than any future, conference-related script.
“We were getting our chemistry down, being around each other as much as we are,” Wells said. “It’s coming together for us. But we’ll have our bad games and we’ll have our good games. We have to live in the moment whenever we have it. It was great to have this win in this kind of atmosphere. Just to see the bench, everyone into it, it was like we were really having fun together. We just have to build off this and get better every day.”