COLLEGE PARK, Md. – There’s not much that went right during Maryland’s 89-75 loss at home to Minnesota Feb. 22, but, at the very least, the Terps found their answer to who would replace Michal Cekovsky’s offensive production.
For one game at least.
Sophomore power forward Ivan Bender played 16 minutes with fellow big man Cekovsky out for the year with a broken ankle, and the 6-foot-9 Bosnian poured in a career best 15 points on 7-of-10 from the field. Bender’s 15 represented a team-high for the offensively challenged Terps, while he added in five rebounds and two assists out of the post.
“It means a lot for me to step up. I just have to play smart, be in the right spot and finish. And I think I did that [against Minnesota],” Bender said. “We’re a man down, so LG [Gill], I and Damonte [Dodd] have to step up every game and cover what Ceko meant to us throughout the season. Ceko has been a great shot blocker, finisher. Every big has to step up and make up for it.”
Gill, the converted “5” man, contributed six points and six rebounds in 15 minutes, and Dodd, the starter, only had seven points and four boards in 21 minutes.
Combined, neither matched Bender’s output.
“Ivan played great, he had 15 [points] and five [rebounds]. He needs to play like that every game -- just play aggressive,” guard Jaylen Brantley said. “I think he and Damonte and LG are going to help us a lot now that Ceko’s out.”
Bender had shown signs of busting out offensively in limited time earlier during the season. He finished inside two times apiece in Maryland’s recent games against Ohio State and Penn State, and had a 3-of-4 night in a season-high 21 minutes against Iowa. Coincidentally enough, Bender’s best outing during Big Ten play came during the first Terps-Minnesota bout, when the forward dropped in eight points back on Jan. 28 in Minneapolis, Minn.
But Bender more than doubled that production in two less minutes Feb. 22. On top of that, rather than being hesitant around the rim and settling for layups as he’s been wont to do, Bender finished with authority. He threw down three first half dunks, including one that a Gophers’ defender challenged.
“I did it for Ceko tonight (laughs),” Bender said. “In the past, I had a chance to dunk, but I made some and missed some. But [against Wisconsin] I was encouraged and tried to finish every play, especially with Ceko out.”
Of course, 10 of Bender’s 15 points -- and all three throw downs -- came during the first half. He actually only had one bucket and a foul shot during the latter 20 minutes, but added a final basket after the outcome was long decided.
Minnesota adjusted to the Terps’ ball-screen action and did a better job defending the pick and roll, which seemed to rattle UMD’s ball-handlers. Meanwhile, Maryland started settling for jump shots and forced 3s rather than finding ways to feed the post.
“We had some good looks there, missed some … and we weren’t able to penetrate or score around the basket the way we wanted,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “I think we got sped up for a couple possessions. But we’ll get better with that.”
The poor shot selection was only part of the problem. Bender and his teammates couldn’t stop Minnesota all night, allowing the Gophers to slice through the lane unabated; come open backdoor; and procure open jumpers with the defender a step slow to rotate. It didn’t help that the Terps kept turning the ball over, gifting Minnesota easy transition layups.
Bender, in particular, surrendered his share of inside buckets. He and the other Maryland bigs had zero blocks the entire game.
“Guys were wide open,” Bender said. “We weren’t good [defensively] down the stretch.”
The Terps need to buckle down defensively, re-find their shooting stroke and regain their swagger in order to make a March run. But they’ll also need Bender to keep doing his best Cekovsky impersonations, with the added element of rim protection.
Which Bender is more than motivated to do, not only since he has a chance to shine with increased time, but because the two are close friends.
Cekovsky and Bender have bonded over their Eastern European backgrounds and shared language, the pair actively communicating with each other much more efficiently than they could their American teammates. Basically, the two understand one another, and thus they’ve adjusted to life in the United States together; learned the ins and outs of Western culture together; and developed their English together.
“I would say so,” Bender said when asked if he was playing for Cekovsky from here on out. “He hasn’t had any luck this season, but everything happens for a reason. I know that because I was out two years with my knee surgeries. I’m sure everything is going to go well with his surgery [Feb. 27]. We’ve got his back, and we’re there for him.
“And [as a team] we’re going to bounce back. I think if we stick together and believe in each other we’ll be good.”