COLLEGE PARK — With an expected Terps victory Tuesday night, fans were looking forward to a matchup between a pair of Big Ten men’s basketball leaders when No. 9 Maryland visited No. 20 Illinois on Friday night.
They got their wish — barely.
Despite a scoring drought spanning nearly eight minutes in the first half, the Terps joined the Fighting Illini atop the conference with a come-from-behind 56-51 victory over Rutgers before an announced 15,855 at Xfinity Center on Tuesday night.
Maryland extended its winning streak to five games and improved to 18-4 overall and 8-3 in the league. The Terps will meet Illinois (16-6, 8-3) on Friday at 8 p.m. No. 16 Michigan State, which entered Tuesday in a tie for first place, lost at home, 75-70, to No. 22 Penn State.
Coach Mark Turgeon acknowledged how fortunate his team was to escape with a win.
“We weren’t our best, but when we had to be, we were good,” he said.
The Terps were buoyed by the play of sophomore forward Jalen Smith. The Baltimore resident and Mount Saint Joseph graduate — affectionately called “Stix” — scored the team’s first eight points and added six points, eight rebounds and five blocks in the second half to finish with 14 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks.
The 6-foot-10, 225-pound Smith, who picked up his 12th double double of the season, credited the improved defensive play with igniting the team.
“Pretty much, after the Iowa game, Coach said we had to get back to our defensive principles and the way we play defensively, and pretty much every time I saw a shot go up, I tried to block it or try to alter it,” he said, acknowledging later that some of his blocks were fouls that officials failed to call. “That just led to those six blocks."
Turgeon said Smith, who hit three of seven 3-point attempts, is feeling confident.
“Some of the shots he made were really tough shots, and it’s good to see,” Turgeon said. “Defensively, I don’t know how many can guard like he can. We can switch ball screens if we have to, and we did tonight. His post defense has been great. His timing is great. He’s staying down and not going for shot fakes.”
Senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. led all scorers with 17 points and chipped in four rebounds and three assists. Junior guard Darryl Morsell had 14 points and six rebounds.
Mired in a scoring drought of 7:38, the Terps trailed 25-18 with 5:26 left in the first half, their largest deficit of the game. Buried in a 25-20 hole at halftime — the fewest points they scored in the first 20 minutes this season since totaling only 18 in a 52-48 loss at Seton Hall on Dec. 19 — they went on a 6-2 mini-run over a 63-second stretch to draw within 27-26 with 16:37 left in the second half. Morsell, a Baltimore resident and Mount Saint Joseph graduate, fueled the surge with a dunk down the middle of the lane and a layup within 25 seconds of each other.
Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell quickly called a timeout, and Turgeon urged his players to continue attacking the rim.
“I told them when they called timeout, ‘I love layups. Just keep getting layups. We’ve got a lot more layups in the second half,’” he said “We had to have a good start to the second half, and we did. Otherwise, it maybe would have been too much pressure on us to make shots late in the game. All the pressure was to make free throws, and our guys stepped up and did that.”
Maryland went on another spurt, this time 8-2. Smith had six points on a 3-pointer and a three-point play to give the team a 34-29 advantage. Shortly afterward, he collected his 10th rebound for his fifth consecutive double double.
Rutgers narrowed the deficit to two with three straight points, but the Terps went on a 10-4 burst over a 2:43 span — the final six points provided by Cowan and sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins on back-to-back 3-pointers within 55 seconds of each other.
The Scarlet Knights did tie the score at 49, but Maryland converted seven of nine free-throw attempts over the final 2:13 to cement the victory.
Yeboah paced Rutgers (16-7, 7-5) with a team-high 13 points and seven rebounds, and sophomore guard Montez Mathis (John Carroll) chipped in 10 points and seven rebounds.
The Scarlet Knights were forced to play without junior guard Jacob Young, who had averaged 8.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists as a valuable contributor off the bench. According to a team spokesman, Young was suspended for violating an unspecified program rule and did not travel with the team.
Rutgers has missed 14 of 17 3-pointers and has made only nine of 41 from deep in their past two games, both losses.
“We’ve had some stretches this year where we make a ton of threes. Now we’re in a stretch here where we haven’t,” Pikiell said. “I want us to drive it. Obviously, the big fella Sticks is in the middle there. He kind of hurt us getting the ball to the rim.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.
No. 9 Maryland@No. 20 Illinois
Friday, 8 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM