Maryland Rutgers Basketball

Maryland guard Hakim Hart (13) and guard Eric Ayala, top, celebrate a play against Rutgers during the first half of Sunday’s game in Piscataway, N.J.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — This Maryland men’s basketball team is not making a push for a conference title like the one last year’s group secured. These Terrapins are simply clinging to their NCAA tournament hopes while looking up at the elite Big Ten teams that are hanging around the top of the national rankings. But the Terps have undeniably improved over the past couple of months, and their game Sunday against Rutgers served as an ideal measuring stick for that progress.

The Terps leaned on an excellent defensive effort on their way to a 68-59 win at Rutgers Athletic Center. With a fourth consecutive conference victory, Maryland (14-10, 8-9) has firmly positioned itself inside the NCAA tournament picture, and the Terps’ path to the postseason became much simpler after another key road win.

“It changes everything,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Today really changes a lot because we beat a really, really good team that’s been playing well in their building. And they were ready for us. It was one of those games we knew we were going to have to play well to beat them. It’s just the maturation of our team. We’ve gotten better.”

All five of Maryland’s starters scored in double figures — led by junior guard Eric Ayala with 14 points and his classmate Aaron Wiggins, who scored 13. But the Terps’ imposing defense is what allowed them to build such a sizable lead against the same squad that notched an emphatic victory in College Park in December. During Turgeon’s tenure at Maryland, the Terps had never beaten an opponent on the road after losing to that team at home earlier in the season.

Rutgers (12-9, 8-9), which had won five of its previous seven games, struggled offensively for much of the afternoon. The Scarlet Knights scored 35 points through 30 minutes of play. They finished the game shooting 38.2% from the field (21 for 55), but nine of those baskets came during the final 11 minutes, after the Terps had given themselves the cushion of a double-digit lead.

“The guys have bought in to it, and they knew that for us to win this game, we had to be great defensively,” Turgeon said. “But the kicker is we’re getting better offensively.”

When Rutgers trimmed Maryland’s lead from 15 points to six with 7:37 to go, the Terps answered with a 6-0 run that included two baskets from senior guard Darryl Morsell. Rutgers never climbed any closer. Throughout the game, Maryland’s defense helped generate offensive opportunities. During that burst, junior forward Jairus Hamilton tipped a Rutgers pass that led to a dunk from Morsell in transition. The Terps scored 20 points off Rutgers’s 15 turnovers.

The previous meeting between these two teams cast a light on the Terps’ offensive problems; they shot a season-low 34.4% from the field in a 74-60 defeat. But Maryland has gradually improved as the season has progressed. Wiggins fueled the Terps on Sunday, extending his run of strong form with his scoring and team-high 10 rebounds. Maryland shot 46.8% from the field, and the defense helped the Terps endure a couple of brief scoring droughts. Ayala and Wiggins have been playing at their best lately, and the Terps continue to grab wins with a defensive-minded approach.

“We’ve got a tough group — guys who bounce back from adversity, guys who fight through,” Wiggins said.

When Maryland lost to Rutgers in December, Ron Harper Jr., the Scarlet Knights’ standout guard, scored 27 points. On Sunday, Harper scored six points on 1-for-6 shooting. Morsell started the game guarding Harper, but Turgeon moved his senior leader over to defend Jacob Young, who led the Scarlet Knights with 19 points.

“And then Young wasn’t scoring anymore. He’s just special like that,” Turgeon said of Morsell. “He guards, he guards, he guards.”

With about six minutes left in the first half, Morsell left the court with a shoulder injury. He returned soon after with his shoulder wrapped and promptly reentered the game. Turgeon said Morsell’s shoulder “didn’t come all the way out,” but he had it popped back in twice during the game. After the second time it happened with about four minutes left in the second half, Turgeon decided not to have Morsell play again.

The Terps took control of the game early when their defense forced Rutgers into an abysmal shooting stretch. During the final eight minutes before halftime, the Scarlet Knights scored four points and missed nine of their 10 field goal attempts as Maryland built a 28-20 halftime lead. The Terps’ stifling defense did not let up after the break, and Rutgers struggled to make much of a push.

Turgeon told his players before their Feb. 14 game against Minnesota — the matchup that began this four-game winning streak — that the best was still ahead.

“And guys believed it,” Wiggins said. “Guys felt like we hadn’t had a great season up until that point, but we felt like we could still turn it around.”

Beginning with the home loss to Rutgers, the Terps started their season with a 1-5 conference record. They trudged through 13 conference matchups without earning back-to-back wins. And now Turgeon has a winning streak, a clear path to the tournament with three regular season games left, a team that keeps improving and players growing in confidence.

“We could have quit many times this year,” Turgeon said, referencing the team’s difficult first half of the conference schedule. “And these guys just kept battling and kept battling. Every time we win, I’m just so happy for the players.”

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