COLLEGE PARK — Nearly five minutes into Tuesday night’s home game against No. 11 Ohio State and headed into the first media timeout, the Maryland men’s basketball team still hadn’t scored. While the Buckeyes had buried two early 3-point shots, they hadn’t buried the Terps and their hopes to beat their first Top 25 opponent this season.
It had to do with the defense Mark Turgeon’s team was playing. What carried over from Saturday’s rout of Indiana at Xfinity Center continued for most of what was certainly Maryland’s biggest game to date, helping turn another early deficit into another relatively easy victory.
With senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. shaking off his own sluggish start to score 15 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, and sophomore Jalen Smith coming through his matchup with Ohio State’s massive center, Kaleb Wesson, with 11 points and seven rebounds, the No. 12 Terps beat the Buckeyes, 67-55.
“I can say it now because we did, but I thought right before half that we blew the game, we’re up 28-20 with 3½ [minutes] to go and their best player [Wesson] was on the bench, it’s 28-22 at half,” Turgeon said. “I didn’t say that to the team. I said, ‘Hey we’re up six, we’ve been down most halves.'... Our defense was terrific."
The victory helped Maryland (13-2, 3-1) climb within a game of first-place and No. 8 Michigan State (12-3, 4-0) in the Big Ten — the Terps are tied with red-hot and surprising Rutgers — while the third straight loss and fourth in six games for Ohio State (11-4, 1-3) pushed the Buckeyes toward the bottom of the league standings.
“Every win is big, especially in the Big Ten, there aren’t going to be too many easy nights,” Cowan said.
There were a few stretches when Maryland was able to play with some offensively proficiency, but for the most part the Terps won with their defense, holding Ohio State to 31.3% shooting overall (21-for-67) and a paltry 18.5% from 3-point range (5-for-27). Wesson led Ohio State with 15 points and nine rebounds.
After the Buckeyes cut their deficit to 31-29 on a layup by Wesson’s older brother, senior forward Andre Wesson (14 points), Maryland built a bit of a cushion by scoring on its next three possessions and eventually building the lead to 12, 53-41, on a mid-range jumper by freshman Donta Scott with a little over eight minutes left.
Aside from Scott, who later added a nice mid-post feed to Smith for a dunk, several others helped complement Cowan and Smith.
Sophomore guard Eric Ayala helped the Terps overcome their slow start by scoring six points of his nine points quickly off the bench to bring Maryland back in the game. Sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins had only seven after a scoreless first half, but a couple of big dunks — in particular a two-handed putback on a missed 3 by Ayala — to keep the Buckeyes at bay toward the end.
"We have some guys that aren’t playing up to their ability offensively, but they’re really doing some great things defensively for us,” Turgeon said. “We’re hanging our hat on that. It’s early. We’ve got 16 games left in league play. Every game is going to be a battle, hopefully we can continue to grow offensively as the season goes on.”
Asked about Maryland’s defense, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said: “I think they’re really good. Their length obviously provides a lot of problems. It’s not just the length inside. And Mark does a really good job. They’re disciplined, they don’t foul. I always felt that Mark’s teams are always smart on how they defend you.”
Cowan credited Smith and junior guard Darryl Morsell for setting the tone defensively.
“I think our anchors on defense — ‘Stix’ and ‘Black’ — Darryl — are really leading us on defense,” Cowan said. “Stix has been doing a great job with a lot of the bigs we’ve played so far, and Darryl has well. The rest of us just feed off their energy and when that happens, we’re able to run and get easy buckets."
Morsell forced sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr., to just seven points, tying his season-low, by forcing Ohio State’s sophomore guard to shoot 2-for-11 from the field, including 0-for-5 on 3-pointers. While the 6-9, 260-pound Kaleb Wesson was able to bully his way inside as the game went on, he also got into foul trouble going up against the 6-10, 225-pound Smith.
“I thought his foul trouble was an issue and he’s got to do a good job continuing to keep his emotions in check, as do I,” said Holtmann, who was called for a technical foul. ""He’s a big body, he’s an easy target for some of those fouls."
Asked how physical the matchup with Wesson got, Smith said: “It was a huge physical matchup. I know coming into the game it was going to be a challenge. Use my speed and my quickness just to get around him, but overall I did my best and we came out with a win.”
The victory was the third straight for the Terps and gives them some momentum going into an important two-game road trip at Iowa on Friday and at Wisconsin on Tuesday. The Terps lost their only two true road games so far this season, at Penn State and Seton Hall.
“You don’t know what lies ahead," Turgeon said. “What I’m really happy about is, we’re getting better. We look like a different team that we did except for the Marquette game. We’re focused. We’re in turn. Guys are locked in. We’ve got to be a better road team. We haven’t been a good road team yet. Hopefully this is the third one. Friday night in Iowa I’m sure it’s going to be a great crowd. We’ve got to respond to it.”
Said Cowan: “I think after that loss to Seton Hall it was a reality check for a lot of us. We came back and locked in and got a lot better in practice and it shows. ...One thing about this team now, we’re having a lot of fun. We’re understanding that you don’t get too many opportunities to play college basketball like this, and you’ve got to sit back and enjoy it. I think that’s what we’re starting to do. I think we enjoy playing with each other.”
No. 12 Maryland@Iowa
Friday, 7 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM