Maryland’s game against Minnesota on Thursday night was expected to be one of this season’s marquee Big Ten games at Xfinity Center just a few months ago, before both teams began underwhelming campaigns. Both teams have lost their best players. Both have endured implosions. Neither could afford to lose this game, not if they wanted to stay in the NCAA tournament picture.
Maryland remained relevant in that conversation with a 77-66 win, a welcome bounce-back after Monday’s gut-wrenching loss at Michigan.
“A force to be reckoned with. I mean they had to beat Michigan at Michigan. So they were obviously a difficult matchup for us tonight,” Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino said afterward.
That one-point defeat to the Wolverines included a late-game defensive meltdown and decisive free throws in the final seconds. Maryland’s players stared at the floor in silence for a good 20 minutes in the locker room after. And it was easy to wonder if those demons had followed them back to College Park in the early going against the Golden Gophers. There were point-blank misses, botched free throws and several missed closeouts on defense, and the 13,736 in attendance grew eerily quiet after the first media timeout.
But if Maryland (15-6, 4-4 Big Ten) showed anything on a night it was expected to win, it was that it still has enough talented pieces to make the second half of the Big Ten season interesting. Among them: Anthony Cowan Jr., who didn’t score his first points until midway through the second half but still finished with 15, along with a career-high 10 assists; sophomore Kevin Huerter, who missed just two shots and finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists; and senior Michal Cekovsky, who continued to blossom as a complete player late in his career, scoring 17 points, one shy of a career high.
And it has resolve, because not only was Maryland again playing with just nine scholarship players Thursday night — injured power forwards Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender sat behind the bench in black hoodies and offered encouragement to their teammates all night — but also freshman center Bruno Fernando played just nine minutes because of foul trouble.
“We’re still a very good basketball team. Coach [Mark Turgeon] . . . a couple weeks into the season, he didn’t know if we were a tournament team. And even with all the injuries and stuff, he thinks we’re a tournament team now. We just have to keep getting better,” Cowan said.
With Minnesota (14-7, 3-5) keying on Cowan in the first half — he didn’t score on 0-for-3 shooting but finished with five assists — Huerter took over the scoring load. It was crucial for the sophomore to do so, both given how slow he started in the loss to Michigan and because of the putrid offensive performance his team put forth in the early going Thursday.
Maryland went more than six minutes without a field goal early in the first half — a drought was bookended by a pair of buckets from freshman Darryl Morsell — and it didn’t help that Fernando picked up two fouls over that stretch.
Huerter sparked an 11-0 run after the scoreless run ended, hitting a pair of three-pointers and assisting Cekovsky on another layup. Yet Maryland still missed Fernando, especially on the defensive end; Turgeon was forced to go to reserves Joshua Tomaic and Sean Obi in the frontcourt for stretches, which was a problem against Minnesota’s talented big man Jordan Murphy. But Cekovsky also gave Maryland much-needed rim protection against Murphy, altering shots and forcing the Gophers’ big man to earn his 19 points on 17 shots.
“Ceko is playing the best basketball of his career, which is great. Knock on wood, hopefully he can keep doing it and stay healthy,” Turgeon said.
Fernando went back to the bench after committing an offensive foul on Murphy just 59 seconds into the second half. But Huerter again responded, first with a three-pointer and then an assist of a Cekovsky dunk. That spurred a 19-2 run that gave Maryland a 46-34 lead with 12:49 remaining that not only featured two more Cekovsky dunks but also three-pointers from both Tomaic and Morsell, the latter of whom had only hit 2 of 19 from beyond the arc entering the night.
Cowan’s first field goal came, a three-pointer from the left corner, came with 11:31 left to make it 53-36. Then he did it again on the next possession from the same spot. Maryland started the second half by making 10 of its first 11 shots from the field. That is the kind of production Huerter knows his team is capable of, and must continue, to make a run over the final 10 games.
“We know that there are opportunities that we’ve let get away from us. But sitting at 4-4 in the league, we’re not in a bad spot,” Huerter said. “Every single game, we’re taking a step in the right direction.”