Illinois coach Bruce Weber tried to convince his young team how much better Maryland would play on its home court, but he believes his explanations fell on deaf ears early in the game.
"I think going in they looked at Maryland on what they did in Puerto Rico. Iona beat them pretty bad, (so did) Alabama. They didn't realize mentally what it was gonna be like. I told them we're the better team, but you've got to do it on their court at a high level. They're gonna come out fighting; I know Coach Turgeon's teams, and they did."
Brandon Paul's dunk gave the Illini their only first half lead to open the game. The Terrapins quickly reversed that, forcing the Illini to play from behind. Paul was fouled on a free throw putback, his two free throws tying the game 20 all. But the Terps quickly regained a nine point lead. They went to the locker leading 35-31, and it could have been much worse.
"We missed some open shots early, and then we started freezing. And then they took it to us. One guy was three for 17, and he makes his first four free throws. It happens at home. But we hung in there. We grinded it out, toughed it out."
It was a different game second half. The Illini held Maryland to 27 points and found a way to take over the game. Nursing a narrow lead late in the game, the Illini made some key plays to prevent a Terrapin comeback.
"We were much more energetic second half, got the loose balls. Tyler (Griffey) makes a big play, Tracy (Abrams) gets a rebound, Sam Maniscalco throws up whatever it was and gets his own rebound. We made plays down the stretch and did a much better job defensively. We won the MATTO in the second half, and that was key."
Maniscalco, who led the team with 24 points, made a sensational play with the shot clock running down. He explains.
"I was stuck there at the free throw line. They switched that ball screen, and I had nowhere to go. So I scooped it up and went and got it."
The rebound and subsequent timeout took the heart out of the Terps. Each time the Illini needed a big play, Maniscalco came to the rescue. His left handed scoop bank in traffic was beautiful to behold and came with the shot clock running down. He thrives on that challenge.
"I want the ball in my hands at that time. I'm a fifth year senior, I'm a leader on this team. I've been through the wars. I've made some of them, I've missed a lot of them too. But I think that's what helps me make them."
Maniscalco was valuable even without scoring. He was the leader the Illini have missed the last couple years. He set up the offense, checked with the coaches regarding offensive and defensive schemes and talked to his teammates when they needed it.
Late in the game Meyers Leonard, who has continued his high school tendency to complain to refs and talk to opponents, blocked a shot in the corner. His legs became tangled with the Maryland player, prompting a Leonard response. Maniscalco stepped in to nip it in the bud before it could get out of hand.
"I told him to stop talking. He was talking right in front of the refs. The last thing we wanted in that situation was a technical foul."
Weber is proud of his senior.
"24 points, he made big threes, he knows what's going on, he talks to them. He's still making some mistakes that he shouldn't make, but I think when he gets more minutes he'll get better. It makes a world of difference. Then you have Tracy to compliment him."
Maryland played with a short bench. Weber feels his team was able to tire them in the second stanza.
"I think our pressure kind of wore them down. We're not yet into traps and things, but we talked about making it hard the whole time, wearing them down. We played much better defense second half and held them to 27. And we did a much better job on the boards second half.
"First half, I think they had 12 or 13 second chance points. I've got to believe we limited those in the second half."
Maniscalco praised his teammates.
"I thought the guys off the bench played well. I thought Tracy brought us great energy. He led us on offense with four assists, he had three rebounds, two free throws, he guarded. Tyler had a big three from the corner. Meyers defended the paint. It was a good team win. We're glad for the "W."
He singled out junior Brandon Paul for special praise. Paul has been mired in a slump but came out and battled the entire night. He hit only 5 of 14 shots but hit all six free throws, led the team with 7 boards and had three assists and two steals.
"I thought Brandon really played well to start the game. He had a few free throw put-backs and got to the line a few times. If it hadn't been for Brandon, we would have been down a lot further."
Paul wasn't perfect, but Weber agrees he made definite progress.
"He went to the basket. He's not shooting well from three, so do other things...shot fake, penetrate, kick. But he was definitely more aggressive. We've been harping on rebounds, and he got seven rebounds. So a lot of positive things."
Paul seconded Maniscalco with 17 points. Leonard added 12 points, 6 rebounds and three blocks. Griffey scored 7 points while grabbing 6 boards and adding three assists and two blocks. D.J. Richardson scored 6, hitting only 2 of 8 shot attempts.
Weber is pleased to record his 200th Illini victory, but he's equally happy about winning a Big 10/ACC Challenge game.
"Our juniors are 3-0 in the Challenge. We also have the most wins in the Big 10, I think we're tied with Wisconsin with 6. Now we'll see if everybody else does what they're supposed to and find a way to win the thing."
The Illini now come home to take on highly rated Gonzaga in the Assembly Hall Saturday.