COLLEGE PARK -- Early in the season, if one had proposed that Maryland lean hard on its defense late to close out a game, it would have seemed unwise.
The Terrapins just were not to that point yet, using their offensive firepower instead to win games more in a shootout than a defensive chess match, like when they hit big shots late and put 75 on Georgetown and 77 on Illinois State and managed 81 (but surrendered 89) against North Carolina.
Times have changed in College Park -- no more readily apparent than Saturday against No. 18 Purdue when the Terrapins slammed the door shut in the game’s final six minutes by ripping off a 16-2 run to seal a 72-61 victory over the Boilermakers.
“Guys, I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve had really, really, really good defensive teams,” head coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. “But right now we’re playing at a level that I don’t know if I’ve seen as a head coach out of my teams.”
The tide likely turned after Maryland’s 74-65 loss to Michigan State on the road in East Lansing on Jan. 23. After guard Bryn Forbes torched the Terrapins’ perimeter defense for 25 points, something must have clicked.
With the combination of forwards Jake Layman and Robert Carter, Jr., they held National Player of the Year candidate Jarrod Uthoff to just nine points on 2-of-13 shooting in the game that followed, a victory over then-No. 3 Iowa. They won a pair of defensive battles against Ohio State and Nebraska.
Then on Saturday, they went stop-for-stop with KenPom’s No. 8-rated team in adjusted defensive efficiency for the win.
“We try to make defense our identity,” senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “I keep saying this and we keep saying it to each other. We have all the physical tools to be a great defensive team. It’s just about locking in, dialing in, and effort.”
Every season has ebbs and flows, which is why Maryland’s defensive uptick is so important right now. Oddly, the team’s offense -- even with the fact that all five of its starters could carry the offense on a given night -- has struggled on and off over the past six games.
Sometimes it is a second half where the points dry up, like against Iowa, or the whole game is a rock fight, like against Nebraska.
Fortunately for them, there is that defense.
“When our shots don’t fall, we rely on our defense,” Carter said after scoring 19 points against Purdue. “We got a bunch of long guys that can move their feet, that can rebound, block shots, different things like that so we’re just trying to use that to our advantage and when it’s time to compete and clamp up to win the game we did it tonight.”
This is the reason why many view Maryland as the team with the highest ceiling in the country and undoubtedly one of the 15 or so teams that could win a national title.
If they are ever able to string together a defensive stretch like this with an offensive one that we have seen at different points in the season, watch out.
“It’s a lot of fun when you’re sitting over there and you know you’re going to get stops,” Turgeon said. “I keep saying our offense is going to play at a high level at some point, but the good thing is we continue to win.”