COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Back on January 17th, back when Maryland’s first run through the Big Ten conference schedule was still in the beginning stages, the Terps were in the process of making what appeared to be a definitive statement as to who Wisconsin’s biggest challenger for Big Ten supremacy would be.
On that day Mark Turgeon’s club blew out Michigan State in the Xfinity Center, a 75-59 win that completed a sweep of the Spartans and put Maryland into sole possession of first place in the league standings. But over the course of the past month, that win had begun to feel like the high point of the Maryland season. There were blowout losses at Indiana, at Ohio State, at Iowa. There were a series of closer-than-they-should-be wins over league bottom-feeders at home, including a buzzer-beating win over Northwestern in which the Terps capitalized on one of many Wildcat collapses this season.
There were questions mounting. If Maryland is truly a top 15 team, why aren’t they beating the teams they should beat by more? Why can’t they blow people out? The eye test may not factor into NCAA tournament selection, but try explaining that to a rabid fan base after getting blown out in three straight road games.
That brings us to Tuesday night, No. 14 Maryland’s date with No. 5 Wisconsin, a chance to not only keep the dream of a Big Ten regular season alive but an opportunity to legitimize that gaudy, 22-5 record.
“I told my team pregame,” senior guard Dez Wells told reporters after the game, “I said, ‘just follow my lead.'”
And that they did. Wells finished with 26 points, seven boards and four assists to lead Maryland to a season-defining, 59-53 win.
Wells was the best player on the floor Tuesday night, a powerful statement considering that National Player of the Year frontrunner Frank Kaminsky plays for the Badgers. The key to the game was always going to be the matchup between Wells and whichever Wisconsin forward guarded him, and Wells completely dominated that battle from the tip. He scored 14 of his 26 points in the first 20 minutes, continually beating the slower Nigel Hayes, a 6-foot-7 power forward, off the dribble.
He was the bulldog, the leader that every coach expects their senior star to be.
“It’s a great feeling when you see your senior leader go out there and say, ‘hey coach, we got this,'” Mark Turgeon said after the game. “That’s what you expect out of a guy that grows with the program.”
“Dez is special. I’ve been saying that. He’ll make somebody’s roster because of the way he competes.”
While Dez will get the headlines on Wednesday morning, it was freshman point guard Melo Trimble that made the difference down the stretch. He finished with 16 points, including a pair of critical buckets and two free throws in the final minutes. His biggest basket came with 33 seconds left in the game. Wisconsin had cut Maryland’s lead to three, but Trimble was able to beat Josh Gasser — a terrific defender — off the dribble and score, putting the Terps up 57-52 and all but starting the Badger busses.
“I don’t know how many more times I can brag about Melo,” Turgeon said of his star. “Melo’s Melo. He does what he does.”
The Badgers got off to a slow start on Tuesday, shooting 29.6 percent from the floor and 1-for-11 from three while digging themselves a 31-20 halftime deficit. Some of those threes were forced, but a more than half of those that they missed were wide open looks. After the game, Bo Ryan and the Badger players attributed those misses to quick shots, firing up jumpers without playing inside-out. That may have played a role, just like the raucous student section and the unfriendly confines of a new road venue may have played a role as well.
The Badgers got eight straight points from Frank Kaminsky early in the second half to climb back into the game, and as the Terps started sending waves of help into the post, the threes began to fall. Wisconsin tied the game at 47, but a tough traveling call went against the Badgers, and Maryland took advantage. Wells twice got into the lane and drew a foul, and after a free throw from Kaminsky, blew past Hayes again, this time dunking on Wisconsin’s entire front court.
That made it 53-48 with four minutes left, and Wisconsin would not have possession with a chance to tie the rest of the game.
The win was a critical one for the Terps, as it not only keeps them alive in the Big Ten title race — they’re now two games back of Wisconsin with three to play — but it’s another quality win to add to their tournament profile. For a team projected to fall in that No. 3-No. 5 seed range, beating one of the nation’s best teams can really make a difference.
There’s more to it than just the numbers, however.
“Today was big,” Turgeon explained, doing his best journalist impression, “because, ‘Well, they’ve only beat Northwestern by two, they’re only beating Nebraska by four, they’re only beating Penn State by six. How good are these guys?’ Well, we are what we are. We figure out a way to win. We compete when we have to. I’ll take close wins when we win.”
“You can win as many close games as you want to, but because of somebody’s record, they expect you to blow them out,” Wells added. “But there’s good players on those teams, and just because somebody else blows them out doesn’t mean that we’re going to.”
“You’ve got to keep perspective and know that we’re going to play our game and execute the way we know how to and trust that everything is going to come out the way we want it to if we do those things.”