The Terps (13-2, 3-1) had shown flashes of great potential, but they have endured some recent slip-ups, too. Now they have two straight solid outings against Big Ten foes, following Saturday’s 75-59 win against visiting Indiana, and they are slowly separating themselves in a congested conference.
“We won because our defense was just outstanding,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “… I’m encouraged because I don’t think we’re playing great yet. But we beat a really, really good team that I think can win a national championship if things go the right way for them in March.”
Maryland mostly contained Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, a force in the paint who can also hit shots from the perimeter, even though he led a late push by the Buckeyes. The Terps benefited from an early barrage of three-pointers, which allowed them to seize a first-half advantage that never disappeared.
After Jalen Smith’s thunderous dunk handed the Terps a 12-point lead with about a minute to go, the spectators inside Xfinity Center jumped to their feet. The rest of the game had become a formality, the Terps having sealed an impressive win and handed the Buckeyes their third straight defeat.
Maryland’s defense again shined, holding the Buckeyes to 31.3 percent shooting, and the Terps had one of their better shooting nights (45.7 percent) of the season. Matched up with Smith, Wesson ran into foul trouble in the first half, which relegated him to the bench for the final five minutes. He finished the game with 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
“Just knowing that I’m maturing more from my freshman year and taking on that matchup and not being so shy about it based off my frame,” Smith said, “it gives me that confidence that I need.”
Some of the Buckeyes’ other scorers, including Duane Washington Jr. (seven points on 2-for-11 shooting) and Luther Muhammad (scoreless on six shots), struggled against Maryland, too, and Ohio State (11-4, 1-3) made only 5 of 27 three-point attempts.
“We always talk about how defense wins championships,” said Terps junior Darryl Morsell, who spearheaded the effort that suffocated Ohio State on the perimeter.
Before the season, Morsell said assistant coach Matt Brady pointed out how the teams that played for the national title last year, Virginia and Texas Tech, were two of the best defensive teams in the country. That’s what the Terps continue to emphasize. Defense is becoming this team’s identity. The strong effort in that area, sophomore Eric Ayala said, has been a common thread in these past two Big Ten wins.
Senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. led the Terps with 20 points, 15 of which came in the second half, but three of his teammates scored at least nine. Turgeon has seemingly settled on his starters — an experienced group along with freshman Donta Scott — and Maryland has enjoyed well-rounded production from players behind Cowan and Smith.
Maryland, which entered shooting 30.7 percent from behind the arc, hit 7 of 11 three-point attempts by six different players in the first half. Smith made two shots from deep, the fifth time this season he has hit multiple threes in a game.
Despite taking a 28-22 lead into halftime, the Terps were far from perfect in the opening half. Maryland had 10 turnovers on its first 22 possessions — and then had only four turnovers in the second half. And in the game’s opening minutes, the Terps slipped into a familiar slump, but with even less early offensive success than usual.
“We have some guys that aren’t playing up to their ability offensively,” Turgeon said. “But they’re really doing some great things defensively for us, so we’re hanging our hat on that.”
Maryland didn’t score until Ayala split a pair of free throws more than five minutes in, and it didn’t make a field goal until Smith converted a three-pointer on the Terps’ next possession. Maryland had to rely on its defense to keep the Buckeyes from building more than an eight-point lead, but eventually the Terps found their stride. They took their first lead at 12-11 on Serrel Smith Jr.’s three-pointer, and they forced Ohio State into a four-minute drought.
The visitors suffered through another shooting slump in the second half, missing 12 straight shots at one point. That defense carried them through the night, erasing the deficit from another slow start and propelling them to a meaningful victory.
“Even when our offense isn’t clicking, just guard,” Morsell said. “It will eventually come around. That’s what happened tonight. We just found a way to win.”