COLLEGE PARK — The Maryland men’s basketball team needed to win one like this ... a bar fight of a game that showed they could get physical with one of the best teams in the country.
“We got hit in the mouth,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said, “and I think we’re back in the hunt.”
Sure, they came in 12-2 and ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25, but too many of those wins were unconvincing and none of them had come against a ranked team.
That changed Tuesday night at Xfinity Center, when the Terps got tough with No. 11 Ohio State and came away with a 67-55 victory that should propel them back into the top 10 if they can get past Iowa on Friday night in Iowa City.
The Terps had struggled for weeks to maintain their heady early national ranking after rising as high as No. 3 in early December. They slipped out of the top 10 after back-to-back road losses to Penn State and Seton Hall.
They’ve been plagued by slow starts and big turnover totals, forcing coach Mark Turgeon to tweak his offense over the holidays to get the Terps ready for “the meat” of the Big Ten schedule.
The Buckeyes are the first ranked team Maryland has faced and, of course, will not be the last. Turgeon pointed out during his Monday media session that there are so many top-50 teams in the conference that every game is a potential dog fight. On Tuesday night, Rutgers knocked off No. 20 Penn State, 72-61.
“We’re going to beat each other up,” Turgeon said. "There are going to be a couple teams that separate themselves. I don’t know who that’s going to be, but the rest of us will probably just beat each other up and hopefully we’re one of those teams that separates itself.”
That turned out to be prophetic on Tuesday night as Jalen Smith spent much of the game in a very physical battle with imposing Ohio State center Kaleb Wesson, who outweighs him by more than 40 pounds.
Smith absorbed a couple of nasty elbows and Wesson had one of them reviewed for a possible flagrant foul, but Smith seemed to rise to the occasion. He held his own inside and helped put Wesson in foul trouble in the second half.
“It was a huge physical matchup,” Smith said. “I knew coming into the game, it was was going to be a challenge, just trying to use my speed and my quickness just to get around him. Overall, I did my best and we came away with the win.”
Turgeon had to be pleased. He has been pushing Smith to take his inside game to a higher level — literally — and become more aggressive around the basket.
“My whole deal with ‘Stix’ is just bounce up,” Turgeon said after the game. “If you’re not hurt, bounce up and he did that. He bounced up every time. He was terrific.
“Think about this. We thought ‘Stix’ was going to be our four-man. So all summer he’s guarding guards and this and that and now he’s guarding maybe the best low-post player in the country tonight, and he does it with a smile on his face.”
That might have been the main event, but Turgeon was just as impressed with freshman forward Donta Scott, who delivered another strong all-around performance and played almost twice as many minutes (32:50) as he averaged through the first 14 games or the season.
“Yeah, he’s got some toughness to him,” Turgeon said. “He’s physically tough and he’s mentally tougher. And he’s really helping us.”
Scott’s teammates also were buzzing about the way he stuck his chin into a game the Terps really needed to win.
“I don’t even know how to explain Donta," guard Darryl Morsell said. "Donta’s like a pit bull. If I go in a back alley, I want Donta with me.”
If the Terps are going to develop into the team everyone thought they would be when the season began, they’ll need to show that same toughness and resolve on the road.
“We have to be a better road team,” Turgeon said. “We haven’t been a good road team yet. We’ll see. This is the third one [in the Big Ten]. Friday night in Iowa. I’m sure it’s going to be a great crowd. We’ve just got to respond to it.”