Midway through the second half of Saturday night’s game, Jalen Smith backed down Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman and finished a left handed hook shot. On his way back down the court, Smith let out a yell as he pounded his chest. The Spartans lead had been cut to single digits for the first time all half.
On the ensuing possession, the Terps forced a missed three. But, as he did all game, Tillman snagged the rebound and kicked the ball out to Aaron Henry. Henry swung the ball to an open Rocket Watts, who buried a three and quieted the crowd. Watts’ three extended the Spartans lead and they would not look back, beating No. 9 Maryland 78-66.
“They played really well. They hit a lot of shots. But then we also gave them a lot of second chance opportunities,” point guard Anthony Cowan said. “Can’t do that against a team like Michigan State.”
It was a sold out crowd at the Xfinity Center for the first time all season, but the Spartans quickly silenced the Maryland faithful. Three consecutive layups by Henry and Malik Hall gave the Spartans a 6-0 lead and when Watts drained a corner three, Mark Turgeon was forced to take a timeout.
The Terps are no strangers to early first half deficits and they started to climb back. By the under 12 minute media timeout, Maryland had cut the lead slightly to seven points. But then the Terps started to make their run. A 12-4 spurt was capped by a Ricky Lindo Jr. three to knot the score at 23.
But the veteran Spartans remained unfazed. On the next possession, Tillman rebounded a Kyle Ahrens miss and finished inside to put the Spartans back on top. Cassius Winston then drained consecutive jumpers and the Spartans lead ballooned to seven. To end the half, Winston casually drained a shot well beyond halfcourt to put the Spartans up 11 at halftime.
“It was a beautifully designed 75 foot play,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said with a chuckle. “That’s coaching fellas.”
The Terps had been in this position before. After the Minnesota miracle on Wednesday, they had completed six double-digit comebacks.
But the Spartans showed their poise, answering all of Maryland’s runs. Watts followed his clutch second half three with a baseline pull-up jumpshot and Maryland’s momentum was shot. Maryland would cut the lead to ten, but that was the last time the game was in single digits.
The loss finishes a 1-2 week for the Terps, who’s sole victory came on a Darryl Morsell buzzer beater. An underlying storyline has been the struggles of their senior leader, Cowan. The Bowie native shot 9-34 during the three game stretch and has not made a three in over a week.
“We have each other’s backs. Ant, he’s our leader and we’re always going to have his back,” Donta Scott said. “If he’s having a bad shooting night or anything like that we’re always going to pick him up.”
The lone bright spot for the Terps was the play of Jalen Smith. The big man recorded his 18th double-double of the season. But, his play was matched by Tillman’s who recorded 14 points, 12 rebounds and a team-high six assists.
“He’s a great player. Great big man. Tough, gritty,” Scott said of Tillman. “It’s a little tough but I gotta battle, no matter who I am playing against.”
The loss trims Maryland’s lead to one game in the Big Ten, with Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin all one game back in the loss column. The Terps can clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season with a win at Rutgers on Tuesday, but the margin for error is more slim than before.
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