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Michal Cekovsky staying consistent crucial for Maryland to make NCAA tournament run

COLLEGE PARK — The bounce pass from Maryland sophomore guard Kevin Huerter was delivered from the high post with perfect precision and timing early in the second half of Thursday’s game against Minnesota at Xfinity Center.

The recipient, senior center Michal Cekovsky, had cut toward the basket, caught the ball with two hands and launched himself off the floor for a dunk.

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It was reminiscent of how the two had started the game before Cekovsky began to struggle, unable to finish at the rim or even catch the ball cleanly at times.

Len Elmore, who worked Thursday's Maryland-Minnesota game for FS1, came away impressed with what he saw from the Terps in his first live look in nearly three years.

“Ceko, when he plays really well, I think as a team we play really well defensively and offensively,” Huerter said later, after Cekovsky scored 17 points and blocked four shots in Maryland’s 77-66 victory that broke the team’s two-game losing streak.

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“When he’s looking to score and make plays, it’s just another dynamic to our team that teams have to guard more. And defensively, just being the anchor, I thought he had a really good game against [Jordan] Murphy, just making him finish over him and playing without fouling.”

With both Huerter and fellow sophomore guard Anthony Cowan feeding him, Cekovsky scored 10 of his points during a 21-2 run that broke open the game. If only the game was more often that easy, for the Terps and their 7-foot-1 enigma from Slovakia.

If only Cekovsky could consistently have the kind of games he played against the Gophers.

Asked what the difference is when Cekovsky plays as he did in the second half against Minnesota compared to other games, when he starts fast and disappears or simply seems out of sync from the opening tip to final buzzer, Huerter said it’s a reflection of the team itself.

“I just think with this team as a whole, across the board, we’re just trying to find consistency,” said Huerter, who finished with team highs of 19 points and eight rebounds, to go with five assists. “We’re trying to be as consistent as possible whether we’re at home or on the road.”

Darryl Morsell's efficiency, Minnesota's lack of quality big men and two questionable 3-pointers by Maryland upperclassmen were all noticeable during a 77-66 win by the Terps over the Gophers.

Nearly a year removed from the broken ankle he suffered at Wisconsin last season that caused him to sit the final six games — four of them losses, including opening-round defeats in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments — Cekovsky is finally starting to play with some consistency.

His performance against the Gophers, which included playing a career-high 34 minutes, was his third time scoring in double figures in the past four games and his fourth in the past six. It is his best offensive stretch since early last season, when he had just recovered from a hamstring injury.

“It’s easy to play when you have really good players around you, and [Minnesota] focus more on them than you,” Cekovsky said after the game.”

Said former All-American Maryland center Len Elmore, who was the analyst on the Fox Sports 1 telecast Thursday, “The more he got those alley-oops and the more they found him, the more he was willing to move without [the ball]. I think that’s very important because that’s going to be the best way to use him. Use his length.”

Cekovsky’s defense is as important, and at times more important, than his offense. With forwards Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender out for the season with injuries, it’s up to Cekovsky to lead an otherwise inexperienced frontcourt rotation that now includes freshman center Bruno Fernando and redshirt freshman forward Joshua Tomaic.

Asked what he did in contributing to Murphy missing 10 of 17 shots, Cekovsky said, “I think my size was kind of bothering him. I watched a lot of extra film before the game and everybody was helping me, too, [on the court]. My teammates were digging [collapsing on Murphy]. ... I think it was a team defense.”

Cekovsky said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has told the team’s big men they need to score more in order to take pressure off Huerter and Cowan.

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“I think we did a good job with that tonight," Cekovsky said. “I just have to be aggressive all the time, not like the first half when I missed all those layups.”

The Maryland men's basketball team delivered an efficient and balanced performance in Thursday night's 77-66 victory over Minnesota, but the trick might be doing it against the more formidable teams in the Big Ten.

Cowan, who finished with a career-high 10 assists and then scored all 15 of his points in the last 11½ minutes for his second career double double, said he didn’t tell Cekovsky anything in particular. It was more a message directed at the whole team during a timeout early in the second half.

“I was just telling my teammates in the huddle that they’re really trying to get the ball out of my hands, and really trying to worry about me, so if you get open, I’m going to get you the ball,” Cowan said. “And they got open.”

Turgeon said at one point in the first half he even told Cowan, “ ‘I don’t know what you’re career high in assists is, but it’s going to be tonight.’ He had 10 and he probably should’ve had 14.”

Cekovsky was partially responsible for that. In the first half, he mistimed his jump on a couple of possessions and had to bring the ball down before shooting. In both halves, he also missed what appeared to be a few easy chances at the rim on passes from Cowan.

Yet, given the way he has played of late — he scored a career-high 18 points in 18 minutes in a loss at Ohio State and hit 28 of 39 shots over the past six Big Ten games — Cekovsky could be an X-factor that was missing when he was injured last season.

Huerter said before the season that the way the Terps were forced to play with then-senior Damonte Dodd and Bender as his backup was different and perhaps less effective than the way Maryland did when Cekovsky was healthy.

Turgeon can see the difference as well.

“Ceko is playing the best basketball of his career, which is great,” Turgeon said. “Knock on wood, he can keep doing it and stay healthy. I’m really happy for him. He was really, really good defensively. [Murphy] is a load, man. He had 19 points on 17 shots. They had a hard time scoring over Ceko tonight.”

Said Elmore, “He doesn’t play well in a crowd. One of the things I said on TV was that they were helping so much on Huerter and Cowan driving that they lost contact with Cekovsky. If you lose contact with a kid like that and he gets his confidence going, it’s hard.”

Cowan said that Maryland’s frontcourt will be a big factor if the Terps want to make a run for a fourth straight NCAA tournament.

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“I think Bruno is going to start getting back aggressive again,” Cowan said of the freshman center, who played just nine minutes against Minnesota because of foul trouble. “Then we have both of them down there, it’s definitely a problem [for opposing teams]. It definitely helps me out. You see with the assists, just finding them around the basket.”

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