COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The first time he touched the ball March 3, Jake Layman turned it over. It was part of another slow start for his Maryland Terrapins, who had lost three of their last four games.
But by the time Layman walked off the Xfinity Center court with 2:16 to play to a huge ovation from another sellout crowd, he and his teammates had turned things around, recording an 81-55 win over Illinois in the home finale and making Big Ten teams take a longer look at the No. 14 Terrapins (24-6, 12-5) and just what they may be capable of March 9-13 at the conference tournament.
“I’m so happy we played really well tonight and just got the win,” said Layman, who had a team-high 18 points in his home finale. He was 7-of-11 from the field and 3-of-5 from 3-point range, part of a barrage by the Terrapins, who hit a season high 14 3-pointers in 25 attempts and simply buried the Illini (13-17, 5-12) with the onslaught.
“I was in charge of 3-point shooting,” joked Coach Mark Turgeon after the game. “We got our legs back under us (with rest), we moved the ball and we’ve got pretty good shooters. Felt like we missed a lot in the first half we could have made but second half, they all started to go.
Maryland hit 10 of 13 3-point attempts in blowing the game open in the final 20 minutes. Turgeon attributed the surge to a great practice on Tuesday, a longer one that went two hours and 15 minutes but came during a stretch where Maryland has had only two games in the last nine days.
Rested legs make good shooters happy.
“Tonight’s fun,” said Turgeon. “It’s good to have a win and win easily. Guys make shots, smile and enjoy it. It should boost our confidence.”
Asked about the win clinching a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament, Turgeon was whispering “huge” under his breath before the question was even complete. “It helps a lot, helps us mentally. We don’t have the tremendous depth. We have good depth and it’s getting better, but it’s hard to win four games in four days.”
Lately, it had been just hard to win. Turgeon felt Maryland was only “a break” from winning at Purdue, then everything, including the angst among fans, might feel a lot different and the Terps wouldn’t have dropped out of the Top 10 for the first time this season. “It coming and we can feel it,” said Turgeon of the momentum the team lost in the recent stretch. “We feel like we can play with anybody…The key is we’re playing better. Are we playing our best basketball? No, but we’re getting closer.”
Turgeon hugged Layman and fellow senior Rasheed Sulaimon closely when he took them out of the game. The hug lingered with both of them – Turgeon’s long history with Sulaimon dating back to his Texas A&M days an often-told tale.
As for Layman, well, hear Turgeon talk about the lanky 6-9 bomber from Wrentham, Mass., and it’s hard not to hear Gary Williams talking about what Walt Williams meant to Williams’ rebuilding effort at Maryland many years ago.
“Jake is one of my all-time favorites because he stuck with me, stuck with Maryland basketball,” said Turgeon. “He committed to us when we weren’t very good. What I’m most proud of is his development as a player. And he’s made the last step this year where he has a good feel for the game and has become a really complete player. If I wanted one guy to have a great night tonight, I wanted it to be Jake. It couldn’t have gone much better. Every shot barely hit the net. He was on fire.”
It took a while for the spark to catch fire. The Terrapins came out in the second half doing a lot of the things they had trouble doing most of the first half. Good defense fed the fastbreak and an 11-4 run to start the second stanza. Sulaimon hit a 3-pointer, Layman got one, too, and when Jared Nickens hit one in transition at 15:49, Maryland’s lead had ballooned to 42-25.
“We shot the ball a lot better,” said Layman. “We had too many turnovers (seven) the first half. We found the open man, started to make some threes. I think when we’re rolling, sharing the ball, we’re really hard to guard.”
It looked like there was more coming in this flurry but Melo Trimble was knocked to the floor and the turnover resulted in an easy fastbreak basket for Malcolm Hill to stop the 9-0 Terps’ spree.
Jaylen Brantley hit another three after an Illinois basket. The Illini finally strung together some baskets and got the lead down to 45-34 at 11:22 on a jumper by Hill.
And that’s when the Top 5-ranked Terrapins showed back up.
Maryland ran off the next 11 points, another three by Layman starting the run. Then a Donald Trump-“HUUUUUGE” blocked shot by Damonte Dodd fueled a fastbreak that ended with Brantley getting fouled and Illini coach John Groce picking up a technical foul. Trimble hit the two technical free throws and Brantley hit his two. The Maryland lead was back to 18 points.
Trimble scored on back-to-back drives to make it 56-34 at 8:56.
Trimble broke out of his shooting slump – 11 of 47 the previous four games – to hit 7-of-14 against Illinois and to tie Layman for team-high honors with 18 points. Trimble equaled a season high with eight rebounds and also had five assists and just two turnovers.
“Because of the way I play, I really needed that rest,” said a relieved Trimble. “I just needed to see a shot go down and feel lively again. I just needed to smile. I haven’t smiled like I used to in a while so I had to show it today.”
Everyone in the home white was smiling when the Maryland lead reached as many as 31 points at 9:35 on the second on back-to-back threes from Robert Carter, Jr., to make it 74-43. The Terrapins made the visitors pay for a strategy that revolved around doubling the post on any low-block touch, part of Croce’s pack-line concept.
Late in the first half, Carter began effectively beating the double team with cross court passes to wide open players, usually Nickens, who had 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting (4-of-7 behind the arc) and Sulaimon who had nine assists, freed up to break down the defense after Carter’s quick ball movement.
Carter chipped in 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go with six rebounds.
The strategy did neutralize Diamond Stone, who had just four points and five rebounds in a season-low 12 minutes, but the Illini paid a heavy price, the Terrapins going small, heating up from long distance and moving the ball efficiently after a slow start. Maryland had 21 assists on 30 made field goals. The Terrapins were 18-27 from the field (66.7 percent) in the second half.
“The way they were guarding us, I just happened to get open and my teammates did a good job of finding me,” said Nickens, who had his top scoring effort in 24 games, and his second straight double-digit effort.
Sulaimon had just three points in 36 minutes, but again was a catalyst in his final home game. Brantley had seven timely points off the bench, his emergence coming at an opportune time and giving Turgeon the ability to play a smaller, quicker lineup more often.
Varun Ram got in late, the crowd demanding his entrance, and he nailed a 3-pointer to the delight of Xfinity Center. Walk-on Trevor Anzmann, the final senior, assisted on that play.
Big 6-10 Maverick Morgan led Illinois with 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting, usually on jumpers off screen and rolls or easy dinks around the basket off a switch. Illinois shot just 38.6 percent (22-of-57).
Maryland led 31-21 after another sluggish first half. The Terrapins heated up to shoot 44.4 percent (12-of-27) but they had seven turnovers, and only inept and injured Illinois allowed them to lead. The Illini were 9-for-26 (34.6 percent) from the field and that was after missing their first seven shots.
After that horrid offensive start, the Illini warmed up and sliced a seven-point Terrapin lead to 11-7 at 12:49, when Morgan got a three-point play on a stickback.
It was 19-16 at 6:29 when Kendrick Nunn drained a baseline jumper but the Terrapins, now pressing full court and getting a lift from Nickens off the bench, got hot. Nickens hit a three, and after Morgan canned a pick-and-pop jumper, Sulaimon nailed another three. Carter scored in transition from Trimble to make it 27-18 at 3:12.
Carter made a great spin move for a hoop and Layman got a dunk on a quick ball reversal as the Maryland offense started to look better late in the half.
Morgan, on his way to 13 first half points, scored inside again to make it a 10-point game at the half.
The Terrapins jumped to a touchdown lead, holding Illini scoreless for the first six minutes. Maryland got second chance points for first two buckets and Stone made two free throws to make it 7-0 at 14:24. Illinois, which missed its first seven shots and had a shot clock violation, finally scored at 13:54 when Morgan scored inside.
The Illini were hampered in their comeback attempt by 5-of-20 shooting from 3-point range.
The Terrapins wrap up the regular season March 6 at first place Indiana. Trimble, for one, is ready for the challenge. “I just keep getting better (physically) and [March 6 is] a big game for us. We just have to take care of business and keep playing well.”