COLLEGE PARK — In this case, the numbers did lie — at least a little.
Maryland was outscored badly to start both halves and outshot by Rutgers Wednesday night at Xfinity Center. The Terps were missing open looks and forcing a number of shots while not doing a very good job contesting the Scarlet Knights for most of the game.
Stagnant on offense, and not engaged defensively until the last five minutes, the No. 14 Terps figured out how to win a game as heavy favorites by waking up on defense, taking control of the boards and knocking down a few shots toward the end.
With a couple of big 3-pointers by freshman wing Jared Nickens, a dozen straight successful free throws attempts the stretch and a better-late-than-never defense that held the Scarlet Knights to one field goal in the final four minutes, Maryland beat Rutgers, 73-65, before a boisterous crowd announced at 12,419.
Senior guard Dez Wells led Maryland (16-2, 4-1 Big Ten) with 17 points, making 7 of 8 from the free throw line. Nickens finished with 12 points, all on four 3-pointers in seven attempts. Junior forward Jake Layman added 12 points and a career-high 13 rebounds.
It was enough to prevent Rutgers (10-8, 2-3) from following an upset of No. 7 Wisconsin Sunday night in New Jersey with another victory over a Top 15 team. Senior guard Myles Mack (19 points and six assists) looked like he was going to ruin Mark Turgeon's night.
"It's league play, people are coming after us," said Turgeon, whose Terps took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. "We've got to be more mentally ready to play. We weren't ready to start the game, we relaxed because we had a seven-point lead [at halftime] and we thought we were going to win easily at the half."
Said freshman point guard Melo Trimble, who would finish with 11 points and four assists: "We kind of played lackadaisical, it kind of started in warmups, we weren't ready to play, none of us were really sweating in warmups."
Rutgers jumped out to an 8-0 lead to start the game, then scored the first 11 points of the second half to seemingly take control. Even after the Terps nearly caught up, closing to within 52-51 on a layup by senior forward Jon Graham with a little over 10 minutes left, the Scarlet Knights took a 57-51 lead with 7:27 left.
Maryland never found a rhythm offensively, shooting a dismal 21-for-61 from the field despite making 11 of 28 of 3-point attempts. Except for Nickens, none of the Terps shot particularly well: Wells missed nine of his last 10 from the field to finish 4 of 15, Layman was 3-for-12 and Trimble was 3-for-9.
"For us to shoot 8-for-33 in the second half and for them to play as well as they did the first 10 or 12 minutes of the half, and for us to figure out a way to win, it is a really credit to our guys," Turgeon said.
Yet the Terps followed the same pattern that has resulted in a number of victories this season. They outrebounded the opposition (46-33) and made their free throws when it mattered, particularly as Rutgers helped Maryland's cause by shooting 8-for-16 from the line.
One difference in the way the Terps won Wednesday was that Trimble, who has made a strong case for all-Big Ten honors as a freshman, got help from his teammates. The Scarlet Knights did everything they could to force him to give up the ball, which he did in finding Nickens and others.
"I believe that all five guys on the court can shoot, with Evan [Smotrycz] at [center], we all can shoot," Trimble said. "Most of the time when they do draw double, one of our passers can make a play. That's what happened tonight. Whoever I passed to just made a play."
Trimble and others said that a few choice words from Turgeon in the first half "got things going." When reminded how slowly the Terps started in the second half as well, Trimble said, "And he yelled at us then, too."
Turgeon didn't take credit for Maryland's late surge, instead talking about the crowd that despite falling way short of a sellout did its best to give the Terps a lift down the stretch. It was similar to the way the crowd at Illinois contributed to Maryland's loss in Champaign last week.
"I thought the crowd was unbelievable," Turgeon said. "For a Wednesday night, cold weather outside, I thought our crowd was really great. It got really loud out there in the second half. I think it was kind of the difference in the game."