When the shots fell early for the Terps — 12 of the first 18, including seven of their first 10 3-pointers — the lead grew, eventually bulging to 16 points in the first half and 21 later on.
By the time Maryland left the court after a 73-57 victory, the Terps looked like a different men’s basketball team from the one that had slogged through the Big Ten this season.
Much of the postgame talk centered on a defense that had been virtually nonexistent during Maryland’s 74-70 loss at Penn State four days before as well as in many of its recent defeats.
As important as it will be for the Terps to continue with that defensive effort when they visit Nebraska on Tuesday night, it will also be vital for the offense to keep up its recent improvement.
“Saturday’s game was different. They played a matchup zone, and we were really the first team to create problems for them,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said on a teleconference Monday. “I think us running more freelance, more old-school passing game, kind of helped us.”
Turgeon’s decision to change the offense came a little over a month ago, after Maryland’s 91-69 loss Jan. 11 at Ohio State.
When the Terps charged out to an early seven-point lead that night, Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann switched his defense to put more pressure on Maryland guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter.
Holtmann’s strategy forced the two sophomores to take tougher shots or give up the ball. Cowan, who hit his first two 3-pointers, and Huerter, who hit first 3-pointer, each finished with just 12 points, combining to shoot 7-for-23.
“I literally could not get Kevin or Anthony an open look,” Turgeon recalled Monday. “We started slowly after that game … and it just kind of evolved. It’s gotten a little bit better. And we’ve added things to that.”
After Saturday’s win over the Wildcats, Huerter recalled the message Turgeon gave his team after putting in the new offense.
"He said, ‘You guys just got to go out there and play,’ ” Huerter said. “ ‘We’re going to set screens for each other. It’s going to be really hard to scout’ because teams really can’t scout just movement, just being a basketball player.”
While the overall results have not turned around Maryland’s season — the Terps are 3-5 since the offense was put in — the team has been in every game and could have had at least six wins had the defense played better.
“I think game by game, practice by practice, the more you get comfortable, the more you learn how to cut with each other, learning how to screen,” Huerter said. “Offense hasn’t been a problem for us. The past couple of games it’s been the defensive end.”
Cowan, who ran the same offense during the three years he played at St. John’s College High, said the key is crisp ball movement that can make a defense look a step — or two — slow, as happened Saturday against Northwestern.
“Try to make the defense make a dumb mistake,” Cowan said Monday.
Cowan said what also helps is that not many teams play against the kind of offense the Terps are now using. While not quite the Princeton offense, some of the principles are similar in terms of spacing the floor and using more of the shot clock.
“Most defenses, they’re not really used to guarding people for more than 20 seconds,” Cowan said. “The way we screen and move and pass from one side to the other, it’s bound to make a team mess up at some point.”
Not that Maryland has run its new offense to perfection. In the 71-68 loss at Indiana on Jan. 22, the Terps held a five-point lead with under five minutes to play, but Cowan wound up forcing up some shots down the stretch.
Cowan acknowledged that trust is also important.
“Just trusting teammates to make plays and for our teammates to know we have confidence in them to make plays and to get shots for others,” Cowan said. “When you see a matchup you think you can exploit, Coach always gives us the freedom to do that."
Nebraska plays more man-to-man than Northwestern, but also uses a 1-3-1 zone. Using that defense, the Cornhuskers scored the last 14 points to win last season’s only meeting with the Terps, 67-65, in College Park.
“It’s going to be the same principles [as playing against Northwestern]. We just have to move the ball and have great spacing,” Cowan said.
While the Terps have played more efficiently on offense at home than on the road this season, there have been instances in which being in a hostile environment has not impeded Maryland’s ability to score.
In its only Big Ten road victory, a 92-91 overtime win at Illinois on Dec. 3, the Terps hit 19 of 26 shots in the first half to build a 19-point lead and after nearly losing in regulation, they converted most of their overtime possessions.
In their two best road performances since the new offense was implemented— a 68-67 loss at then-No. 23 Michigan on Jan. 15 and a 75-67 loss at then-No. 3 Purdue on Jan. 31 — Maryland executed its offense well for long stretches.
“Does it help us when the crowd gets into it when we’re really good like at Purdue? We were really good in our passing game offense and our motion in the second half, and it kind of helped us in the stick around a little bit,” Turgeon said Monday.
“I think the guys are realizing we can really use it as a weapon to try to wear the other team a little bit. As long as guys are making the right reads and taking the right shots, I'm good with it in any building.”