COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- There were just over two minutes left in the Big Ten opener when Melo Trimble, Anthony Cowan and Justin Jackson headed to the Maryland bench to a loud ovation from a sell-out crowd of 19,750 at Xfinity Center Dec. 27.
Those three gentlemen had just helped put the finishing touches on a dominating 84-59 conference win over Illinois that answered a lot of questions about this now 13-1 Terrapin team.
“I think tonight attests to our team’s character,” said Jackson. “We have the will to win. We have a bunch of players that love playing together and love playing hard for each other. We stayed together as a team tonight.”
Maryland snapped Illinois’ (0-1, 10-4) six-game winning streak and made the visitors look bad in the process. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who has sweated out his share of games this year with his young team, doesn’t want anyone to be fooled about the quality of this victory.
“That was a phenomenal win for us, we beat a really good team,” he said. “It started on the defensive end. We were terrific defensively. On offense we played unselfish. We shared the ball and we got a lot of points in the paint and didn’t settle for jump shots. I thought our fans were terrific. We had a sellout and it was a really great win. Don’t take it lightly because we’re 13-1. That was a heck of a win by a young team.”
The simple truth is that after some ups and downs – six wins by six points or less -- the Terrapins do what they do better than the Illini do what they do, whatever that is, at this juncture. The quicker Terps never gave Illinois a chance to do much of anything on this night.
“We took a lot of pride on the defensive end and made stops,” said Trimble, who had 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field. “Once the defense comes through, we start making threes and getting to the basket. Then we pretty much kept our foot on the gas.”
You could say that. Maryland’s 25-point win was the most lopsided in a conference opener by the Terrapins since 1973-74 in an 89-60 win over Clemson back in the ACC, long before any of these current Terps were born.
And the callow nature of the roster with three freshmen starters and then acerbated by the absence of veteran centers Michal Cekovsky (sore ankle) and Damonte Dodd (lingering knee injury) made for an uncertain Maryland effort for most outside the Terrapins’ Xfinity locker room.
“We had a great game plan, and even with Ceko and Damonte out we were just going to go at them,” said Cowan, who had 12 points, six assists, three steals in 34 hard-charging minutes.
“I never want to take Anthony out, but I just do to get other guys in,” said Turgeon. “I thought defensively the first couple of possessions he was terrific. He got the ball in the paint. He got his floater going, and he’s making the right decisions. Six assists and one turnover in 34 minutes as much as he handles the ball is terrific.”
The Lilliputian Terrapins trapped the ball often when it went inside to the bigger Illini, and forced bad decisions. Illinois had 17 turnovers leading to 22 Terrapin points and beyond those possessions, time and again, the Illini took bad shots when Maryland sped them up with their quickness. Only once this season had Illinois shot worse than Tuesday’s 35.6-percent (21-of-59) brickathon.
And then, even without Ceko and Dodd, Maryland had a 37-36 rebounding edge, a testament to Terrapin quickness and will.
“Honesty, coach told us to not look at it (missing the bigs) as a bad thing, but look at it as an opportunity to show the world how good we are,” said Jackson, who had 12 points on 6-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and two blocked shots. “They were big so I felt like I could use my quickness to my advantage, no discredit to them.”
Jackson said the four days off over the brief break really helped him focus. Moreover, it gave the team their legs back. How else to explain Maryland holding a 13-11 edge in second chance points and an amazing 48-24 edge in points in the paint, many on fastbreak layups.
The moment was not too B1G for the freshmen either. “Things get more tight when it’s conference, it’s more physical and it’s just different,” said Trimble. “Everyone just got their mind right and played the way we know how to play.”
The last time Illinois had a chance to head off Maryland, the Illini had cut the lead to 14 points for the second time early in the second half. That’s when the Terrapins applied a knockout punch with a 14-0 run. It began when Jackson, having one of his best all-around games, showed more of his unbelievable skill-set with a perfect entry pass to Kevin Huerter, who had the defender on his hip and scored an easy lay-in to make it 49-33 at 15:11.
An Illini missed shot turned into a Trimble three-point play on the break. Trimble scored on another drive, then Cowan did. L.G. Gill scored on a lob from Cowan. When Dion Wiley drained a baseline three, it was 61-33, at 10:57, and Big Ten coaches had some game film on the Terps they won’t enjoy watching.
The Terrapin defense forced seven straight misses and locked down defensively during that stretch.
“We knew we were the smaller team so Coach (Turgeon) really challenged us,” said Trimble. “He wanted us to box out and said at least two guards needed five rebounds.”
It was Jaylen Brantley, all 5-11 of him, that came through with five boards to go with 13 points, including one on a stickback in heavy traffic. “Our quickness is our strength, especially Anthony,” said Brantley. “We just try to keep up.”
Cowan, Huerter and Trimble all had three rebounds. Ivan Bender, who got his fourth start, chipped in seven points and five rebounds, hitting all three of his shots in 17 minutes. Wiley had nine points on 3-of-5 shooting, and Gill had one of his best games with six points and a team-high seven rebounds in a season-high 23 minutes.
Illinois started the second determined to get the ball down low and score in tight. After a woeful shooting display in the first half, they hit five of their first nine shots, but the Terrapins were still hot, hitting six of their first nine and quickly figuring out an Illini trap.
“We want to throw it in there all the time, that’s who we are,” said Illinois coach John Groce. “But we took the bait with too many jump shots early that were questionable.”
Bender opened the half on a beautiful pick-and-roll basket from Trimble and Maryland’s lead reached 18, the biggest of the game to that point, at 41-23. Illinois would battle back to cut it to 43-29 when Malcolm Hill hit a tough fall-away at 16:47. Hill was one of few Illini immune to the shooting difficulty, hitting 6-of-10 shots on his way to a game-high 21 points.
But the Terrapins stepped on the gas again. Jackson hit a tough drive and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but hustled to half court to force the ball off an Illini player. Trimble fed Bender for another layup to push the lead back to 18.
Illinois answered with a four-point possession, Maverick Morgan hitting a short jumper while drawing Bender’s third foul. Morgan missed the freebie but Illinois got the rebound and Tracy Abrams hit a short jumper to make it 47-33 with 15:33 left. Abrams had a miserable game, hitting just one of his 10 shots.
Maryland took off from there and the carnage began. The lead would reach 31 points as Trimble scored to make it 71-40 at the 7-minute mark.
Brantley, on his way to nine first half points, nailed a baseline three just before the halftime buzzer to make it 39-23 at the break. The smaller, quicker Terrapins terrorized the Illini at both ends, their quickness allowing them to hold their own (20-20) on the boards and limit Illinois to a dismal 8-of-30 shooting (26.7 percent) in the first 20 minutes.
Nearly 13 minutes into the game, Maryland led by the football score of 27-10 when Jackson scored on an NBA-quality drive. That play was set in motion by an offensive rebound by Gill, inside all the Illini trees around the basket. It was a microcosm of the half.
The Terps doubled down on post players when they got the ball and forced bad shots and turnovers. The Illini guards were complicit, too, Illinois missing nine of 10 first-half three-point field goal attempts and committing nine turnovers.
Maryland, meanwhile, hit 54.8 percent (17-of-31) from the field, Trimble also netting nine points.
The Terps led 4-0 early on a Jackson drive and score, and a Cowan fastbreak hoop off a Huerter steal. The Illini, who grabbed five of the game’s first six rebounds, surged back to tie, but then the Terps went on a 13-1 spree to lead 17-5 at 12:18 on Cowan’s pull-up jumper.
Trimble started the onslaught with a drive. Cowan got two free throws out of a fastbreak opportunity, and then made a great scoop to Bender, a reluctant low post shooter. Wiley, playing his first game since Dec. 12, hit his first shot, a top-of-the-key three, and it was 13-4.
Brantley scored on the break and Hill hit one of two free throws for Illinois. When Cowan hit a driving 10-footer, it was 17-5 at 12:18, and Maryland would never trail.
The Terrapins continue the conference homestand Sunday, Jan. 1, hosting Nebraska at noon.