College Park — Two days ago, Maryland men’s basketball junior forward Donta Scott knew he wasn’t going to be in the starting lineup against No. 17 Illinois.
Interim coach Danny Manning wanted to challenge Scott the same way he did graduate transfer Fatts Russell and junior Hakim Hart, leaving them out of the starting lineup in the loss to Michigan on Tuesday.
“It’s our job as a staff to challenge our guys to not only do well off the court as well as on the court,” Manning said. “We expect better across the board.”
Scott was ready for the challenge, scoring 25 points off the bench while leading the Terps to an 81-65 upset over the Fighting Illini on Friday night at the Xfinity Center.
Scott was a menace in the second half, scoring 15 of his game-high 25 points. With the Terps (10-9, 2-6 Big Ten) clinging to a one-point lead with six minutes remaining in the second half, Scott scored five consecutive points to extend the advantage to 64-58.
With Maryland riding a 9-0 run with 24 seconds left, Scott threw a pass to Hart (10 points, three assists), who raced down the floor for a one-handed dunk that solidified a much-needed victory. By winning its 48th straight game when scoring 80-plus points, Maryland ended a two-game slide and stayed above .500 under Manning, now in his second month at the helm after the departure of Mark Turgeon.
“When I stepped on the court, I wanted to do whatever the team needed me to do to win,” Scott said.
After Maryland’s 83-64 loss to the Wolverines, the team felt like it was spiraling down an ugly path. The Terps were in dire need of a spark, both for themselves and the fanbase.
Maryland got good news before tip-off Friday, as Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn was ruled out with a concussion. Without the preseason All-American who tormented Maryland with 23 points and 18 rebounds in the first meeting, Illinois was vulnerable.
The Terps took advantage of Cockburn’s absence, outscoring the Fighting Illini 40-16 in the paint.
Eight of Maryland’s first 15 points came from inside. With Maryland trailing by three, Scott attacked the rim for a layup and a three-point play to even the score at 15 with 14:11 remaining in the half.
Even with Maryland shooting close to 70% from the field early in the game, Illinois stayed within striking distance thanks to impressive shooting from guard Alfonso Plummer, who scored eight quick points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
With Maryland trailing by one, graduate transfer guard Fatts Russell (15 points, seven rebounds) dribbled across halfcourt and turned on the jets, speeding towards the basket for a layup to give the Terps a 22-21 advantage. But Plummer quickly responded, burying another 3-pointer to give Illinois a two-point lead with under eight minutes remaining in the first half.
“The last two games, I felt like I wasn’t attacking how I should’ve,” Russell said of his performance. “Not just for myself but for my teammates. Today, I went out there and be that point guard everyone can feed off of.”
Maryland trailed 29-27 with five minutes remaining in the first when junior forward Qudus Wahab (11 points, four rebounds) scored six straight points, including a two-handed putback slam, to give the Terps a four-point lead. Wahab was sidelined for the majority of the second half because of an apparent hand injury.
Plummer tied the score at 35 after hitting his fourth 3-pointer of the first half, but Hart’s steal and dunk at the other end allowed the Terps to enter the break with a 37-35 lead.
Illinois caught fire in the second half, using a 7-0 run to take a 45-40 advantage. The Fighting Illini, who entered the game as the third-best 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten (38.1%), got a pair of threes from Plummer and Frazier during that stretch.
Frazier kept the hot hand, knocking down another three to give Illinois a 48-42 lead with 16 minutes remaining in the first half. Then the Terps came to life.
With the shot clock winding down moments later, freshman Julian Reese (St. Frances) nailed a contested 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one. After Illinois’ forward Jacob Grandison answered with a three of his own, Scott and Russell converted back-to-back baskets to tie the game at 51 with 13:02 remaining in the game.
Fans began pounding on the red seats inside Xfinity Center when Reese (seven points, five rebounds) nailed his second three of the evening to give the Terps a 57-58 lead. After Illinois guard Andre Curbelo converted a midrange jumper, Reese delivered a pass to a cutting Eric Ayala (nine points) for a layup, allowing Maryland to regain a one-point lead with 7:05 left.
“I think he’s scratching the surface of how good he is going to be,” Manning said of Reese. “The more games he plays, the more experience he has.”
Scott made sure the Terps maintained that lead. He scored nine points in less than two minutes, extending Maryland’s advantage to 70-63 with 3:23 to go. “I was able to take advantage of a smaller defender on me,” he said.
Maryland’s defense made it hard for Illinois to mount a comeback in the closing minutes. The Fighting Illini missed their last seven shot attempts, while Hart and Russell combined for seven steals to help deliver a much-needed win.
“Our guys were locked in defensively,” Manning said. “Guards did a good job of switching and not allowing any slips in between.”
Some might think Maryland won solely because one of the top players in college basketball was sidelined. Others might look at the victory as a sign of hope.
One thing that’s for certain is Maryland is going to compete until the very end.
“The season isn’t over,” Scott said. “At the end of the day, we are all basketball players, competing for the same goal. We just instilled in ourselves to fight until the end.”
Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM