COLLEGE PARK – Nearly every component swayed toward Maryland’s direction in Sunday’s anticipated tilt with No. 6 Michigan State. The needy Terrapins, in the thicket of a desperate hunt for a signature win to its postseason resume, staked a 13-point halftime lead on the Spartans, attacking the program that’s under fire amid the sexual assault scandal.
There was a five-day layoff between games to recuperate and strategize. There was the largest, liveliest crowd of the season that backed them, with 17,950 engulfing the Xfinity Center with boisterous buzz and chants of “overrated!” in that pristine first half. Program icons Gary Williams and Greivis Vasquez even showed up, as well as SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt.
But it all went for naught as the Terrapins’ lack of execution in crunch time relapsed once again, yielding to a 74-68 win for the Spartans, who reeled off an 18-4 run to open the second half, putting Maryland’s NCAA Tournament hopes at an at-large bid on life alert.
“It’s frustrating,” sophomore guard Kevin Huerter said, “because it feels like we’re not making the right plays down the stretch. All the big plays or the plays we’re needed to make, we’re just not making the little plays. That’s why we’re losing close games at the end. That’s why we’re getting frustrated. We’re making the same mistakes.”
The Terrapins (15-8, 4-6 Big Ten) will likely need to win six of their last seven games just to have a shot at an at-large bid. Ten league victories is often a benchmark for the committee come Selection Sunday. Even if they get to that mark, the 1-7 record against teams with a Top 50 RPI will likely hinder the opportunity. And their next task will be even taller, traveling to No. 3 Purdue on Wednesday night with that 1-4 road conference record.
Huerter led Maryland with 17 points on nine shot attempts, and Anthony Cowan added 12 points and nine assists. Darryl Morsell pitched in 12 points and seven rebounds, and Jared Nickens added 10 points off the bench.
Maryland, which shot 50 percent in the first half (15-for-30) and just 35 percent in the second half (9-for-26), came out swinging and seemingly knocked the lauded Spartans off course with the boisterous crowd and infectious energy upstarted by a pair of Dion Wiley 3-pointers. Wiley hit his first trey from the top of the key off a kick-out assist from Cowan, and the second came in the corner by the Michigan State bench, where he then turned around and threw both his hands beside his hips as a subtle taunt.
An emphatic Morsell slam off an alley-oop pass from Cowan helped extend the Terrapins’ lead to 8-0, before Joshua Langford (19 points) put the Spartans on the board with a three-point play at the 17-minute mark. After Huerter’s 3-ball made it 11-3, Michigan State went on a 6-0 burst thanks to Jaren Jackson, Jr. (12 points, eight rebounds), which pulled the Spartans within two – 11-9.
Even after that, Maryland pressed ahead. Huerter barreled down the court and answered with a tough layup in traffic and Nickens canned a 3 in the corner to make it 18-11, Terrapins. Michigan State forward and touted NBA prospect Miles Bridges (11 points, nine rebounds, four assists) hit his only shot of the first half at the 10-minute mark, a 3-pointer in Huerter’s face off the catch-and-shoot in the corner, bringing the Spartans within two once again, 18-16.
Maryland then reeled off a 10-2 run behind six points and a crowd-jolting dunk from senior forward Michal Cekovsky, which gave them a lead of 28-18. Cowan extended the advantage to 32-20 before Nickens hit another 3 in the corner to put Maryland ahead at the break, 37-24.
“We got up 13, and we were all rah rah at halftime. We were excited,” Huerter said. “We knew the game wasn’t over, but we were excited. We got ahead ourselves a little bit.”
Then everything went downhill. The Spartans pounded the backboards – finishing with a 46-29 edge in the rebounding department, getting 16 second-chance points – and took advantage of a Maryland team that struggled to get back in transition, as Jackson hit a 3-pointer on the break to help keep that decisive 18-4 run going.
“We weren’t ready to play in the second half,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “Couple guys didn’t run back on defense. [Michigan State] hit shots. We just couldn’t get a rebound. They had 19 offensive rebounds. That’s the game. It’s key number one in our scouting report and we talk about it every time. We just didn’t do it.”
After hitting just 1 of 10 attempts from deep in the first half, the Spartans made three triples in the opening 5:33 of the second half, which pushed them ahead 44-41.
Maryland answered with a three-point play from Morsell and a Cowan layup to go out in front once again, 46-44, but after that, the hulking Spartans frontcourt took over for good. Bridges nailed a jumper with 11:49 to go that tied it at 48-48 and then center Nick Ward bullied into the lane for a basket in the paint, propelling Michigan State in the clear.
All Maryland fans could do was brace themselves for those turbulent final 10 minutes and the deflating nosedive that came with it, having witnessed another opportunity to regain relevance slip away.
“They came out and hit us between the eyes,” Turgeon said. “Expected to win today. Thought we were going to win today; just didn’t get it done.”