COLLEGE PARK — The Rutgers men’s basketball program is no longer the Big Ten’s pushover.
Maryland was reminded of that lesson Monday night as the No. 19 Scarlet Knights turned a one-point deficit at halftime into a lead that ballooned to as much as 14 before making a comfortable jog to the finish line in a 74-60 thumping at the Xfinity Center.
Junior guard Ron Harper Jr. led all scorers with 27 points and added five rebounds and four assists. Rutgers also got 15 points, three rebounds and three assists from senior point guard Geo Baker, 11 points and three assists from senior point guard Jacob Young, and 10 points and 16 rebounds from junior center Myles Johnson.
The Scarlet Knights improved to 5-0 overall and 1-0 in the conference and became the first team in school history to open the season with five consecutive wins by 10 points or more since the 1934-35 squad set a program record with six double-digit victories.
“They were even better tonight than I thought,” Terps coach Mark Turgeon said. “They’re having fun out there, and that’s what we’ve got to have. We’ve got to have a bit more fun when we play. We’re letting shots affect the way we act. They’re playing loose and having fun. They’re good. They’re really good.”
In their first five years in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights never finished with a winning record in the conference or better than 10th until last season when they went 11-9 and were tied for fifth. Time will tell whether this year’s squad can build on that finish, but they are ranked in the top 20 of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings for the first time since the school ended the 1978-79 season at No. 18.
Harper, the son of former New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls star Ron Harper Sr., is clearly Rutgers’ catalyst. Entering the game as the team’s leading scorer at 22.3 points per game, he shot 10-of-17 from the floor on Monday, including 5-of-8 from three-point range, and scored 19 of his points in a second half when the Scarlet Knights converted a sweltering 63.3 percent (19-of-30).
“He was a problem,” junior point guard Eric Ayala said of Harper. “He was filling it up throughout the night. He hit a lot of big shots to get them on a run. They played pretty big with him tonight.”
But Harper wasn’t alone. Baker, who had sat out the previous three games since spraining his left ankle in a season-opening 86-63 rout of Sacred Heart on Nov. 25, returned to combine with Young to drain 4-of-8 three-pointers and force the Terps to pay attention to the perimeter. That in turn opened up the paint for Johnson, who scored on two dunks, a layup, a put-back and a pair of free throws.
“In the second half, Harper just said, ‘Ah, I’m taking over the game,’” Turgeon said. “They did isolations for him, and we screwed up and didn’t switch a ball screen late. Those little things are hurting us right now. He just said he was going to take over, and they stretched us a little bit, and they were able to get downhill. Our ball-screen defense wasn’t good enough.”
Rutgers also demonstrated a willingness to make the extra pass and share the ball. Eighteen of its 29 baskets were assisted.
Sophomore forward Donta Scott paced Maryland (4-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten) with 20 points and eight rebounds, and Ayala chipped in 12 points. Turgeon said senior shooting guard Darryl Morsell has been bothered by an injured shoulder since the preseason that contributed to him scoring six points on 3-of-13 shooting and 10 total points in his last three starts.
“He’s pressing a little bit,” Turgeon said of the Baltimore resident and Mount St. Joseph graduate. “He wants to do it so badly that he’s pressing. I feel bad for him because he has really gotten better. He has shot the ball better, he’s really gotten better. He just needs to relax and see a couple go down, and then I think you’ll see a different player out there.”
The offense launched 20 three-pointers, missing 16 and shot a season-worst 34.4 percent (21-of-61), beating their previous low of 40.0 percent in Wednesday’s 67-51 loss at Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Still, Scott was encouraged by Monday’s offensive showing.
“It was better than Clemson,” he said. “We moved the ball more and found more spacing and more cutting. So we got easier open looks.”
Turgeon agreed with Scott.
“I think we got good shots,” he said. “We had a lot of wide-open looks out there. But the one thing they do is, they’ve got a little toughness on defense. They get over ball screens, they do a great job with that. But right at the end of the first half, we got our offense going a little bit. You’ve got to give them a little credit, but you’ve also just got to be like, ‘We just didn’t make some open looks.’ If you make three of those open threes in that open stretch, it’s a down-to-the-wire game, and we didn’t. Every time we made a play, they answered it. I do think our offense got better.”
The Terps dropped their second consecutive meeting with Rutgers and have lost two in a row, but will get eight days before their next game against La Salle on Dec. 22. Ayala said the layoff is timely.
“After a game like that, we kind of want to get back out there and play some,” he said. “But I think the eight days, it’s finals, it’s the guys’ time to lock in academically and get some of those things done. I’m pretty sure it’ll be the coaches’ time to get ready for practice and us just clearing our minds mentally and get ready for another team.”
Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM