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Maryland forward Ivan Bender busts out playing 'for Ceko'

“We did some nice things offensively until about the eight or nine-minute mark of the second half," said coach Mark Turgeon. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

COLLEGE PARK — There was a different energy and focus coming from Maryland forward Ivan Bender in the first half of Wednesday's game against Minnesota. He was moving quicker, jumping higher, finishing stronger.

The result: By halftime at Xfinity Center, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound redshirt sophomore from Bosnia and Herzogovina had scored a career-high 12 points, making six of the eight shots he attempted.

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Bender even had back-to-back dunks, a rarity for a player who had not often done that since his two ACL surgeries in less than two years before coming to Maryland midway through the 2014-15 season.

Then again, Bender was playing for two.

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His best friend and roommate, junior center Michal Cekovsky, was back in their apartment, awaiting Monday surgery to repair the season-ending broken ankle he suffered in Sunday's loss at Wisconsin.

Asked about the way he finished at the rim — or in the case of the dunks, above it — Bender said, "I did it for Ceko tonight."

Despite the disappointment of an 89-75 loss to the Gophers, who have now won six straight, the performances by Bender, who wound up with 15 points, five rebounds and two assists, and senior forward L.G. Gill, who finished with six points and six rebounds, were among bright spots in the aftermath of Cekovsky's injury.

"We are a man down, so L.G., I and Damonte, we have to step up every game and cover what Ceko meant to us throughout the season," said Bender, who made seven of 10 shots in the loss to Minnesota. "It means a lot because we have great guards on our team and I just have to play smart and finish every play up they got me. I think I did that pretty well."

The dunks came as a surprise to those who weren't sure of the last time Bender tried one. There were a couple of times recently when it appeared that Bender was indecisive going up, either getting blocked by an opponent or simply banging it off the side of the rim.

"In the past … I've been having my chance to dunk. I made some [layups], I missed some, but today I was encouraged, especially because Ceko was out and that meant a lot to me, so I tried to finish everything hard," Bender said.

Junior guard Jaylen Brantley could see a difference in the way Bender played.

"Ivan played great," said Brantley, who added eight points off the bench, all in the first half. "I just think he needs to play like that every game. He needs to play very aggressive."

Given how well it seemed to work, Bender will likely try to continue to play for two. The thought of what Cekovsky is going through is something Bender can understand.

"He hasn't had any luck this season, but everything happens for a reason," Bender said, alluding to the hamstring injury that kept the 7-1 Slovakian out of the first four games and the foot injury that sidelined him for the first six Big Ten games.

"I know that because I was out two years because of my knee surgeries. I'm sure everything is going to be well with his surgery on Monday. He is going to be strong and we have his back for him."

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