Maryland coach Mark Turgeon must not have known what to do at halftime of his team’s Big Ten opener against Illinois on Tuesday at Xfinity Center. He certainly did not need to scream or yell, as he had done often after the Terps sleepwalked through several games’ first 20 minutes this season.
What was Turgeon to do with his undermanned, undersized team leading the supposedly improved Fighting Illini by 16 points at half? Turgeon barely needed to raise his voice, and spent much of the second half watching the lead grow to 31 points, one of the largest against a Division I opponent this season.
By the end of what turned into an 84-59 rout, all Turgeon could do was smile.
“That was a phenomenal win for us. We beat a really good team,” Turgeon said after the biggest blowout in a league opener for Maryland since the 1973-74 season. “I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t think the numbers were going to be the way they were.”
Neither did Illinois coach John Groce, whose team had won six straight since a three-game losing streak — two of those losses against top 25 teams in late November.
“We had played some really good basketball in the past month,” Groce said. “We had really practiced well over Christmas, which is hard to do. I thought we were really locked in and had done some good things. Today, we just clunkered, combined with them playing really, really well.”
Given how worried Turgeon was after learning that junior center Michal Cekovsky would be joining senior center Damonte Dodd on the bench with an ankle injury, it was certainly a lot easier than Turgeon — or anyone else in the building — could have expected.
“With our two centers out, I was really scared, this is a big team that plays through their post guys,” Turgeon said. “I was really nervous about this game. I just thought defensively we were dialed in. …Then, offensively we were unselfish, we shared the ball, we got a lot of points in the paint and we didn’t settle for jump shots. It was really a great first game.”
While junior guard Melo Trimble would led Maryland (13-1 overall, 1-0 in the Big Ten) with 20 points, and junior guard Jaylen Brantley added 13 points, five rebounds and three assists off the bench, it was freshman guard Anthony Cowan who seemed to set the tone at both ends of the floor.
Cowan frustrated fifth-year senior Tracy Abrams, the nation’s second-leading 3-point shooter at 59.2 percent, into a 1-of-10 shooting night, including 0-for-6 on 3-pointers. On offense, Cowan attacked the basket with his speed and fearlessness, finishing with 12 points and six assists.
“I never want to take Anthony out, but I do just to get other guys in,” Turgeon said. “He was terrific. I thought defensively, the first couple of possessions, he was terrific. He got the ball in the paint, he’s got his floater going. He’s making the right decisions. He does it every day in practice. He’s getting better every day and our team is getting a feel for each other, as you can see.”
Asked if he thought he might have surprised the Fighting Illini with his quickness and ability to finish inside, Cowan said, “I hope I did. I wanted to make sure I came in with the most intensity. It’s not going be me every night. I just have to come and play the best defense I can and get my teammates involved and score when it’s there.”
Turgeon said that he found out on Christmas night when the team returned from a four-day break that Cekovsky was not going to play because of lingering pain from an injury suffered in last week’s win over Charlotte at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore.
Given how important Cekovsky had become in replacing the injured Dodd, who sat out his fifth straight game Tuesday with a sprained knee, Turgeon knew that he had to change the way he was going to defend Illinois (10-4), which had come in averaging close to 80 points a game.
“Tonight we had to play this way to win the game, and we were terrific in it,” Turgeon said of a defense that seemed to double-team the post nearly every time Illinois passed inside. “I thought our timing was great, our rotations were great. And they missed some shots for us early, which helps.”
Except for senior guard Malcolm Hill, who scored a game-high 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting but got off to a slow start while guarded by freshman Kevin Huerter, Illinois struggled offensively. The Illini shot 35.6 percent from the field, including 4-of-22 on 3-pointers.
The Terps, who came into league play 12th of 14 teams in field goal percentage, made 33 of 59 shots (55.9 percent). Despite the difference in size, Maryland doubled Illinois in points in the paint (48-24) and outrebounded the Illini (37-36).
“I think, offensively, we just keep getting better,” Turgeon said. “Early in the year it wasn’t very pretty; we were shooting about 40 percent. But the last few games we’ve been up around 48, [low] 50s. Guys are listening, guys are getting a better feel for each other.”
At halftime, Turgeon didn’t yell or scream, but he was still coaching.
“I’ve got an unbelievable respect for Illinois and their coach and their team, and you’ve got Malcolm Hill on the floor, and 16 [Maryland’s lead], in the college game is not too much,” Turgeon said.
Said Brantley, “Coach was talking about we’ve been a second-half team all year. I felt good to be up at the half, but don’t let up and continue to be a great second half team.”