COLLEGE PARK — Four players scored in double figures as the Maryland men’s basketball team beat Michigan State, 73-55, at Xfinity Center on Sunday afternoon.
The Terps, who never trailed, picked up their fifth straight win after falling to 10-10 overall in early February, further bolstering their NCAA tournament resume. After being on the bubble, Maryland is projected to be a No. 9 seed by many experts, with the potential to move up if the winning streak continues into the Big Ten tournament.
“I didn’t see this coming this quickly in five games, getting to this point,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “But we’ve made a huge jump, obviously.”
Junior guard Eric Ayala scored a game-high 22 points, recorded six rebounds and made all 13 of his free-throw attempts. Turgeon said the Wilmington, Delaware, native played his “best all-around game since he’s been here.”
Maryland (15-10, 9-9 Big Ten) shot 48.8% from the field and made eight of 16 3-point attempts. The Terps also shot 95.8% (23-for-24) from the free-throw line, their best shooting performance from the charity stripe in conference play in the Turgeon era.
“It was the last step,” Turgeon said of the offense. “We figured out the defense first and we got that going and we’re getting a little bit better on defense every time we play. Our rotations are better, guys are understanding quicker. But then we knew we had to make a step offensively.”
Michigan State (13-10, 7-10), which had won three straight, knocking off No. 5 Illinois and No. 4 Ohio State to also regain NCAA tournament consideration, shot 33.3% from the field and 8-for-28 on 3-pointers. Only one opponent has scored at least 60 points during Maryland’s winning streak.
Although the Terps have utilized shorter four-guard lineups throughout the season, senior guard Darryl Morsell had high praise for the group’s defensive effort: “I think our defense is just as good as anybody’s in the country,” he said.
“We had some rim protectors, with Bruno [Fernando] and ‘Stix’ [Jalen Smith],” Morsell said, referencing two All-Big Ten defenders. “But, I think on-ball defense, like just straight-up guarding the ball, I think this team is the best at it [compared to previous Maryland teams Morsell has been apart of].
“We work so hard on it. We work on it every day and it translates to games. And I think with us being so good on the ball, it allows us to switch and not really care about matchups because we’ve got confidence in each other.”
Maryland jumped out to an 11-0 lead in the first four minutes, with Morsell (11 points) scoring five straight points and then sophomore guard Hakim Hart (10 points) and junior guard Aaron Wiggins (13 points) chipping in 3-pointers.
Morsell was a game-time decision but started after injuring his shoulder in last Sunday’s win over Rutgers. Turgeon said team doctors cleared the Mount Saint Joseph graduate to play and he rested throughout the week but practiced Saturday.
“That set the tone for the game,” Morsell said of the fast start. “That’s one of the reasons I played. I know what Michigan State is about and I knew we had to come out here today with energy. And we had to hit them first. If you let them hit you first, it can be a long game.”
The Terps led 35-25 at halftime, shooting 44% from the field and 6-for-10 from beyond the arc.
Maryland’s offense fell off a bit in the second half; the Terps went six minutes without a field goal but kept the lead with their alert defense and aggressive driving to the basket to draw fouls. Maryland was in the bonus for the final 11:37 of the game.
The Spartans got within five — courtesy of a 6-0 run — with 10 minutes left in the game, but the Terps responded with a 9-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Hart to take a 58-46 lead with 5:13 remaining.
With two games left in the regular season before the start of the Big Ten tournament on March 10, only one team in the conference — Michigan — has a longer winning streak than Maryland.
“I think we’re confident and we’ve found our identity and what we do well,” Morsell said. “That’s all you can really wish for right now at this point in the season. It’s winning time for real, so hopefully we get some matchups that are favorable for us and we can make some things happen this postseason.”