PISCATAWAY, N.J. — With a chance to clinch at least second place in the Big Ten with a sixth straight victory, 10th-ranked Maryland seemed to have lost its momentum midway through the second half Tuesday night against the league's worst team at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
What had been an eight-point lead at halftime and an 11-point lead early in the second half was gone. That's when senior guard Dez Wells — and a large contingent of Maryland fans on hand — took over in what turned out to be a 60-50 victory for the Terps.
Wells scored half of his game-high 20 points in the last 5:38, including six straight during an 8-0 run that helped give Maryland (25-5, 13-4) a 53-48 lead and then four more — punctuated by a spinning bank shot in the lane — to help push the Terps ahead, 55-50, after Rutgers (10-20, 2-15) closed to within three with 1:54 to go.
During that late-game run, Wells also had a steal-and-dunk and grabbed his 10th rebound, giving him his first double double in a season in which he missed a month with a broken wrist. It came on a night when freshman point guard Melo Trimble missed 10 of 13 shots, including all five of his 3-point attempts.
"Obviously, Dez Wells put us on his back the last six, seven minutes of the game," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "We went to him on the post, then he got the steal and made a couple of free throws. He was really good."
Wells, who also had four steals and three assists, said he didn't try to take over the game because Trimble had one of his rare off-nights.
"Just whatever my team needed me to do, just wanted to take what the defense gave me and make the best play for my team," Wells said. "Junior Etou is a really good defender and I had to step my game up at the end of the game. Go out there and play as hard as you can and hope for the best."
The Scarlet Knights have done that under second-year coach Eddie Jordan, who starred on the school's only Final Four team nearly 40 years ago. Yet since upsetting then-No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 11 with the Badgers playing without All-American center Frank Kaminsky, Rutgers has lost 13 straight.
Jordan said the differerence Tuesday was Wells, whom Turgeon called "the best player on the court tonight." Jordan credited Turgeon for putting Wells "in the right niche where he has a lot of one-on-one opportunities" and said Wells "played within an 18-foot range and got it done with post-ups, drives, second effort, cuts, offensive rebounds. Good players do that."
Wells had several highlight-reel-type plays, including jumping over 5-foot-10 guard Myles Mack trying to close out on a defensive rotation in the first half, dunking over two bigger players in the second half and then hitting a spinning bank shot late to put the Terps up five.
Asked which was the most memorable for him, Wells said: "Actually jumping over Myles. I never jumped over somebody. I have, but not to that degree."
The victory clinched second place for a team that was picked to finish 10th in its first season in the Big Ten Conference, not earn its first top 10 national ranking since 2002-03. Turgeon admitted that earning second was "all I thought about since the Michigan game."
The Terps finish the regular season at Nebraska's Senior Day on Sunday before heading to Chicago for their first Big Ten tournament. Not only did Maryland secure second place — its best finish since sharing the Atlantic Coast Conference with Duke in 2009-10 — but also will get a double bye, meaning it won't play until next Friday's quarterfinals.
"I really wanted it, I wanted it to happen tonight," Turgeon said. "I try not to show it with the players. It means a lot. It's a great league, we battled, it's a long season, the grind of it is unbelievable. Our guys continue to fight and win. To win six in a row, no matter where you play and who you play, is really good this time of year."
Aside from Wells, what stood out most was the large and loud contingent of Maryland fans that came for the game despite the school's out-of-the-way location and the rain, snow and slush that clogged the roads leading into Rutgers.
At times, it sounded like Xfinity Center North, and Turgeon took notice in the second half.
"We didn't give them a lot to cheer about for a while," Turgeon said of a stretch during which the Scarlet Knights erased Maryland's 11-point lead to tie the game at 45 with a little over six minutes left. "We didn't hear them, and then we stepped up. It's great to see. The fans are pretty excited right now."
Junior forward Jake Layman scored 14 points on six of 10 shooting, and hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second half. Junior center Greg Lewis (St. Frances) led Rutgers with 14 points, to go along with seven rebounds.