COLLEGE PARK — Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon took it as a positive step when his players showed up at practice Monday ready to work, not just worrying about trying to end the team’s first two-game losing streak of the season.
An even better sign came when his three most experienced starters — junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., as well as sophomores Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) — set the tone for the rest of their teammates, particularly the five freshmen.
“The guys that needed to respond to lead, responded,” Turgeon said Tuesday night after the No. 21 Terps beat Northwestern, 70-52, at Xfinity Center. “Our best players practiced hard, and when they do that, everybody follows.”
Though Cowan would get into uncharacteristic first-half foul trouble against the Wildcats, his four-point play on Maryland’s first possession of the game set the tone on a night when the Terps led by 11 at halftime and by as many as 27 in the second half.
The 6-foot-10 Fernando, continuing to build on his candidacy as an All-Big Ten player, and freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) proved to be too much for Northwestern. Fernando finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, while Smith added 14 points and nine rebounds.
The victory helped Maryland (17-5, 8-3 Big Ten) put last week’s defeats — first a 69-55 loss to No. 6 Michigan State in East Lansing on Monday when the Terps were barely competitive, followed by Saturday’s 78-67 dispiriting setback to Illinois at Madison Square Garden — in the past.
It also allowed Turgeon’s team to regain some momentum going into its most daunting stretch of the season with four road games in the next five, starting Friday night against No. 24 Wisconsin in Madison. The only home game in the stretch will be next Tuesday against No. 17 Purdue.
Asked how important it was for the Terps to respond the way they did, Fernando said after his fourth straight double double and 13th of the season: “It was positive for us. It was very encouraging to be able to bounce back from the two losses we had and just move on from those games and try to create another winning streak.”
Told of Turgeon’s comments about how hard the team’s best players worked in practice Monday, Fernando laughed.
“I try to practice hard all the time," Fernando said. “I think that was just two losses in a row and we had to make sure us, as an older guy, we got to come in and set the tone for the younger guys just to follow up with. Me, Ant and Darryl, being the older guys, we did a really great job and everybody followed with bringing the energy.”
Maryland played one of its best defensive games of the season, limiting Northwestern (12-9, 3-7) to 31 percent shooting overall (18-for-58) and 21.7 percent on 3-pointers (5-for-23), including holding its two top scorers, seniors Dererk Pardon and Vic Law Jr., to 7-for-22 shooting. Sophomore guard Anthony Gaines led the Wildcats with 18 points and seven rebounds.
The Terps played most of the second half without Cowan, who picked up his third personal foul with 5.2 seconds to go in the first half when he was called for a Flagrant 1 after getting tangled up with Gaines coming around a ball screen. Cowan was whistled for his fourth foul early in the second half, and played just 19 minutes, just one more than his career-low set against Howard as a freshman.
“Anthony’s a really good defender for us, so to continue to guard the way we guarded in the second half without Anthony was terrific,” Turgeon said. “He was a great teammate in the second half. I can go through all the guys — Ricky Lindo Jr., Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Stix — might have been their best defensive games.
“Darryl Morsell was terrific on defense. Vic Law is a tough matchup. A lot of guys really played well defensively and that’s really what carried us through. Then we were much more efficient in the second half, we got out and ran a little bit more and got the ball around the rim, which was good.”
‘Stix’ starts slow, finishes well: The performance by the 6-foot-10 Smith was the reverse of Saturday’s game in New York, when he scored Maryland’s first seven points and didn’t do much after that, in part because of the time Turgeon had him on the bench in a 26-minute performance.
After missing a couple of shots around the rim against Northwestern, the former McDonald’s All American had one of his best games since scoring a career-high 21 points with eight rebounds in a road win at Minnesota on Jan. 8. He wound up shooting 5-for-10 from the field, made all three free-throw attempt and made one of two 3-pointers.
“And he didn’t start great, did he?” Turgeon said. “We need him. He’s really been working, playing all kinds of different positions, kind of been pushed around. Since the Michigan State game, he’s got like three or four extra weight room lifts in, we’ve been beating on him with pads and things in practice. It’s coming. It takes time. He looked really confident out there especially in that second half.”
Said the still-skinny 215-pound Smith: “Yeah, my little body has become a lot stronger now. When I take a hit I am able to withstand the hit now. Going to the weight room, it helps me with being able to finish around bigger people and making sure that I maintain my balance.”
Bounce back for Ayala
Since landing hard on his left hip in the second half of a road win at Ohio State on Jan. 18, freshman guard Eric Ayala has appeared to be out of sync, particularly in Saturday’s loss to Illinois, when he went scoreless for only the second time this season, shooting 0-for-3 and committing four turnovers.
Things didn’t start that well for Ayala on Tuesday night, as he missed all four shots he tried in the first half. He didn’t score a point until he made a tough driving layup in traffic early in the second half. Ayala followed up quickly with a 3-pointer from the wing and finished with eight points, all in the second half, to go along with four assists. He only had one turnover.
Turgeon recalled a conversation he had with Ayala after the Illinois game.
“Eric’s really shot the ball well since he’s been here, but we recruited Eric because he was a great passer,” Turgeon said. “I was like, ‘Don’t forget who you are, Eric. We love the threes, keep shooting them.’ He made some big ones tonight. ‘But you’re also a great facilitator.’ He looked like Eric again tonight after a couple games where he didn’t look that way. … Good to see Eric back because he’s real important to us.”