RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO — Maryland came to the Cancun Challenge looking to play looser than it had last week in its come-from-behind wins against Georgetown and Rider at Xfinity Center. The Terps wanted to show the skeptics that they were one of the best teams in the country.
After moving up to No. 2 behind Kentucky on Monday, the Terps nearly went down again as heavy favorites. But as they had against the Hoyas and Broncs, Maryland saved its best for the last seven minutes against an inspired bunch of Redbirds from Illinois State.
Trailing by five points with 7:26 remaining and hearing the Redbird fans drowning out their own at the intimate court inside the Hard Rock Resort's convention hall, the Terps stormed back behind guards Rasheed Sulaimon and Melo Trimble to beat Illinois State, 77-66, and advance into Wednesday's championship game.
Sulaimon, the senior transfer from Duke, finished with 18 points. Trimble, the sophomore who came into the season voted to be the Big Ten Conference's Player of the Year, had 15 points and seven assists and led the Terps in their 25-9 game-closing run. Junior center Damonte Dodd added a career-high 13 points and three blocked shot.
Maryland (4-0) will meet Rhode Island in the championship game Wednesday night.
"I think we have some winners, guys that know how to win," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. "We did it last year. I thought Illinois State was terrific. I think tonight we handled the opposing team coming at us full speed, playing their best basketball better than we've handled it all year."
Flustered by Illinois State's aggressive defense and quick guards for most of the night, Trimble took over the game down the stretch. After a 3-pointer by reserve guard Justin McCloud had given the Redbirds a 57-52 lead, Trimble's layup started an 18-5 run. The run ended with back-to-back 3-pointers by Sulaimon and sophomore guard Jared Nickens, both on assists from Trimble, that came after the Terps had missed 16 of their previous 18 3-point attempts.
"It started with Melo Trimble," Sulaimon said. "Melo played amazing tonight. From the way he was scoring the ball to the way he was dictating the tempo of the game, getting everyone involved. Down the stretch when you have a guard like that who can manage the game and can put everyone in the right places, it's really settling and it takes a lot of pressure off guys like myself and Damonte and let's us just play."
Said Turgeon: "That little point guard gave Melo fits for about 25 minutes and then Melo was Melo."
Turgeon was referring to Illinois State guard Paris Lee, who finished with 15 points, four steals and three assists. Forward MiKyle McIntosh led Illinois State (2-3) with 17 points. The Redbirds made eight steals and forced 13 Maryland turnovers, but the Terps made 11 steals of their own and forced 17 turnovers by the Redbirds.
The biggest difference down the stretch for the Terps was their defense, which eventually wound up with nine blocked shots. Aside from Dodd, who took over at center after Diamond Stone got into early foul trouble, Carter also had three blocked shots and senior forward Jake Layman had two.
Turgeon said that this might have been the best game the Terps have played this season, considering that his team was playing away from College Park for the first time against a team that got some early confidence after Maryland jumped out to an early 10-2 lead.
"Opponents are coming after us," Turgeon said. "We played well today, we weren't great at all times. It was a tough matchup. Give them credit. It is hard to win in college basketball. It was a great environment. It was loud and it was hard to communicate. We got it done so I was proud about that."
It won't get any easier Wednesday, when the Terps play Rhode Island, which held off TCU, 68-60. Playing without star guard E.C. Matthews, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening game against American, the Rams were led by former Towson guard Four McGlynn, who scored 18 Tuesday.
"We're getting everybody's best shot, we're getting used to that, as long as we're ranked high," Turgeon said. "We were a better basketball team than we've been, that's a good sign. So we're heading in the right direction."