COLLEGE PARK – Leading 53-50 with 2:12 remaining in the game, the No. 17 University of Maryland men’s basketball desperately needed a basket. The Terps led Purdue by as many as 18 in the first half and 16 at halftime, but the Boilermakers had slowly whittled away the once large lead.
That’s where Aaron Wiggins and Jalen Smith stepped up. As Wiggins drove into the lane, Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic tripped, and he stopped at the foul line. After faking to Eric Ayala on the perimeter, Wiggins found Smith at the right time in the post, and the 6-foot-10 sophomore big man slammed it home.
The dunk allowed Maryland to hold off a pesky Purdue squad and get a much needed 57-50 win.
Since winning three in a row from Dec. 29-Jan.7, the Terps had a lifeless loss at Iowa on Jan. 10, then blundered away a potential win at Wisconsin on Jan. 14.
“We needed a win,” Maryland Head Coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s a great win for us.”
Early on Maryland (14-4, 4-3 Big Ten) looked like it had put the Wisconsin loss in the rearview mirror, bucking their trend of slow starts to jump out to a 9-0 lead. A three-point play from Donta Scott got Maryland started, then 3s from Eric Ayala and Jalen Smith extended the lead. The Terps didn’t cool off, leading 20-4 in just over seven minutes of action.
“We executed our plays to perfection in the first half,” Wiggins said.
Maryland shot 7 for 11 to start the game, and more importantly, five for seven on 3-pointer attempts. The Terps entered the game shooting just 30.7 percent on 3-pointers, which was just 277th in Division I.
Smith and Wiggins both hit two in the early stretch. Those early makes proved crucial, as the Terps missed their last fourteen 3-point attempts after starting 7 for 10 from beyond the arc.
The Terps also got strong play from Scott in the early going, as the freshman scored 11 points in the first half and finished with a career-high 13. The Philadelphia native has started the last six games, playing at least 20 minutes in five of them after hitting that number just twice in the first 12 games.
“He works at it,” Turgeon said of Scott. “He’s grown up in his work habits and work in between before practice and after practice. He was dialed into the scouting report and did a really good job with that. He’s really important to us.”
While Scott flourished in the early going, Smith was the steady presence Maryland needed as the game went along. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, and was excellent on Purdue’s two big men, 6-foot-9 sophomore Trevion Williams and 7-foot-3 junior Matt Haarms. The duo combined for 20.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game entering the game and finished with just 12 points and nine rebounds.
“I told my team every time if there’s a big man that grabs a lot of rebounds and has a lot of size on me, I told them I’m going to box out, so you have to go get the rebounds,” Smith said.
Maryland led by 16 at halftime, but Purdue methodically got back into the game. The Boilermakers (10-8, 3-4) scored the first four points of the second half, then a 3 by Eric Hunter slashed the Terps lead back down to single digits at 42-33 with 14:20 remaining. The Terps kept the Boilermakers at bay for the next few minutes, but their lack of offense caught up with them.
Stefanovic hit three free throws to cut the lead to 53-50 with 3:10 remaining, the first time it was a one-possession game since Maryland led 3-0 in the first half. But as has been the case all year, Maryland’s excellent defense answered the call and held Purdue scoreless for the rest of the game.
“I really think at the end Jalen Smith was the key for them,” Boilermakers Head Coach Matt Painter said.
“We got a couple of iso(lation plays). The best we could get was Trevion with the ball and Matt with the ball in one-on-one plays, and he got the better of them.”
After defeating Northwestern on Jan. 21, Maryland will head back on the road for to take on Indiana. Road games have presented rough waters for both the Terps and the rest of the Big Ten conference. While Maryland is 11-0 at Xfinity Center, it is 1-4 in true road games, and the Big Ten was 6-40 in conference road games after a Terps result.