The last time the program secured its first two wins in the conference over ranked foes took place during the 1984-85 season when that squad knocked off No. 17 North Carolina State, 58-56, on Jan. 2 and No. 2 Duke, 78-76 in overtime, on Jan. 14.
That Maryland (7-6 overall and 2-5 in the league) stopped a three-game slide against a Fighting Illini team (9-4, 5-2) that trailed only No. 7 Michigan (10-0, 5-0) in the Big Ten standings was not terribly shocking to junior shooting guard Aaron Wiggins.
“Our guys came in expecting to win,” said Wiggins, who totaled 12 points, three rebounds and three blocks Sunday. “We believed that we could win. We’ve beaten a Top 10 team more than once in the last couple years. We have the veterans who have the experience and we have the guys who have the mindset to win games. So I wouldn’t say it was satisfying by any means, but it just boosts our energy, boosts our mentality going into the other games.”
For this month alone, those “other games” include a home game against Nebraska (4-8, 0-5) on Saturday, road games against the Wolverines on Jan. 19 and No. 23 Minnesota (10-4, 3-4) on Jan. 23, and another home game against the Badgers (10-2, 4-1) on Jan. 30.
“This league, I’ve never seen anything like it,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s absolutely relentless and just to be able to come in here and beat such a great team after what we’ve been through, our guys have a lot of pride. There’s a lot of guys in the locker room that have won a lot of games, and it rubbed off on the other guys tonight.”
Here are three takeaways from the Terps’ victory.
This year’s team is Darryl Morsell’s team.
Morsell, who grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Mount St. Joseph, overcame a quiet four-point first half by scoring 15 of a career-high 19 points in the second and finishing with four rebounds and three assists.
Morsell’s driving layup from the right wing and over Illinois’ 7-foot sophomore center Kofi Cockburn that gave Maryland a 64-61 lead with 33 seconds remaining capped a remarkable performance fromthe senior shooting guard, who is still getting comfortable with a plastic mask to protect a surgically-repaired bone in his face fractured during the first half of an 84-73 loss to Michigan on New Year’s Eve.
“It was a good bounce-back,” Wiggins said. “He’s that guy on our team who we need. It could be anything that game. It could be just rebounding, it could be making plays for others, and tonight, it was a little bit of everything. He was scoring the ball at will, he was rebounding for us, making plays, and he was good being a leader. When he’s like that, our team is at the peak of our play, and he’s great for us.”
Perhaps just as valuable, Morsell is the emotional leader of a squad impacted by the departures of point guard Anthony Cowan and power forward Jalen Smith, a former teammate at Mount St. Joseph.
“He’s everything,” Turgeon said of Morsell. “He’s the heart of this team. He’s everything for us. So hopefully, we can keep him healthy, and hopefully, he can continue to lead this team.”
As long as Eric Ayala (groin) remains out, Hakim Hart will handle point guard duties.
The sophomore guard finished with nine points and five rebounds with his most significant input coming off a three-pointer from the right wing that gave the Terps a 62-61 lead with 78 seconds left in the game.
Behind the numbers, however, Hart took over point-guard responsibilities after junior Eric Ayala was ruled out before the game because of a groin injury he initially sustained against Purdue on Christmas Day and re-aggravated in a 89-67 setback at No. 5 Iowa on Thursday night.
Hart did not commit a single turnover while running the offense, and freshman Aquan Smart turned the ball over only once as Hart’s backup. Turgeon said he and the rest of the coaching staff trust Hart and Smart to fill that void as long as Ayala is out.
“When Darryl was out [against Indiana on Jan. 4], Hakim was playing point,” Turgeon said. “We moved Eric off the ball. Hakim has played point really for the last three games. So we felt it was a necessary change to kind of get Eric off the ball a little bit and not have to worry about bringing it up and getting us into our offense. And I thought Quan gave good minutes. He competed. So they both did a nice job at the point.”
Maryland is undaunted in the waning moments of tight games.
Trailing Illinois, 61-59, with less than 90 seconds remaining, the Terps scored seven consecutive points and watched junior shooting guard Ayo Dosunmu’s last-second, game-tying three-point attempt clang off the back iron to cement the win.
That resiliency mirrored a similar ending to the victory over Wisconsin last month. Nursing a 60-59 lead with less than two minutes left, Maryland scored six straight points — the first four from sophomore forward Donta Scott and a pair of free throws from Ayala — to enjoy a seven-point cushion with 24 seconds remaining.
That’s not to say that the Terps will emerge triumphant every time the game comes down to the wire for the rest of the season. But Morsell said the players have a certain level of composure in those scenarios.
“Coach Turgeon always talks about valuing possessions, how one or two possessions can change the game,” he said. “Late in games, you see in one-point games, two-point games, with us having that experience and having confidence in one another because we’ve been there, it’s very important, for sure.”