Over the first three minutes of the contentious game, Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon grew frustrated with the officials. His irritation boiled over shortly after guard Anthony Cowan picked up an offensive foul.
An incensed Turgeon screamed at the officials before picking up a technical foul. As play stopped, the Terps’ assistant coaches restrained the ninth-year coach.
In a battle for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten conference, there was no shortage of similar high-intensity moments. Ultimately, it was Turgeon’s No. 9 Maryland team showing enough fight to stake their claim atop the Big Ten standings with a 75-66 road win over No. 20 Illinois on Friday night.
“He said he’s always going to continue to fight for us,” guard Aaron Wiggins said. “When we see that, we tell each other, ‘We’ve got to make sure we’re fighting for him just as much as he’s fighting for us.’”
[Read more: After poor shooting display, Eric Ayala hasn’t given up. Neither has Maryland basketball.]
Turgeon’s technical was his first since last season’s NCAA tournament game against LSU, when his antics helped ignite a spark and triggered a Maryland comeback that fell just short. That wasn’t the case on Friday night, though.
Illinois went on a 22-10 run over the next seven minutes, a span that included another technical foul on a Maryland assistant coach. Andres Feliz capped off the run with a jumper to give the Fighting Illini a 31-19 lead 10 and a half minutes into the game.
A sizable first-half lead against the Terps wasn’t an unfamiliar position for the Fighting Illini. When the two teams matched up against one another on Dec. 7, coach Brad Underwood’s squad blew a 14-point halftime lead as Cowan led his team back.
“Obviously, we’ve been there so much we don’t panic,” Turgeon said. “You’re down 14 with 30 minutes to go, that’s not a lot. … We felt like we could do it. We had to make a few shots, and we had to get our defense going.”
With Illinois on pace to score over 100 points, Turgeon knew he needed to make a switch to try to slow down the Fighting Illini offense and quiet the sellout crowd inside State Farm Arena.
Maryland incorporated its press and zone defenses to counteract Illinois. The change paid immediate dividends as guard Darryl Morsell nabbed a steal that led to a layup for forward Donta Scott.
“The zone changed it for us,” Turgeon said. “Got us back in the game, we started to make some shots [and] gave us confidence.”
[Read more: Maryland men’s basketball needed Darryl Morsell to close out vs. Rutgers — and he did]
Scott added two key buckets minutes later, hitting a layup and a 3-pointer to cut the Terps’ deficit to single digits. The freshman’s contributions helped bring others to life, as well, with Maryland finally receiving support from places outside of Cowan, who scored 11 of the team’s first 15 points.
Wiggins, one of five players to finish in double-digit scoring, finished the Terps’ first-half fight with a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions to bring the visiting Maryland squad within 42-40 at the half.
“The end of the half, Aaron hit two big shots. That kind of got us going,” guard Eric Ayala said. “Everybody just rallied behind each other.”
After halftime, Maryland continued to build on its momentum and took its first lead in over 20 minutes of gameplay when a steal led to forward Jalen Smith’s fast-break dunk.
As Illinois struggled to an 0-for-12 shooting start to the second half, the Terps’ lead swelled to their largest at 53-44 before the Fighting Illini answered with a field goal to end a 13-2 run.
Just as it appeared Maryland could pull away, Illinois made a run of its own to get back within a point. After a defensive stop, it looked as if the Fighting Illini would have a chance to take the lead with just over seven minutes to play.
That was until Morsell, who finished with 15 points, intercepted the outlet pass and knocked down a 3-pointer moments later. Morsell’s sequence proved to be a game-changer, beginning a 10-1 run to build the Terps’ advantage back to double-digits as Turgeon’s team once again summoned the grit to fight back.
Maryland made just enough plays late to sustain the lead and come away with its third road victory of the season.
After the Terps defeated Rutgers on Tuesday, Cowan was reluctant to celebrate when asked if being tied for first in the conference was cause for celebration.
“Not when you feel like you’ve been having the same type of year for four years,” Cowan said Tuesday. “I feel like we’ve been here a lot.”
Cowan may still be rightfully hesitant to celebrate with eight conference games remaining.
But with its position at the top of the standings, Maryland — which has won six straight games — now controls its own fate in pursuit of a regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
“We expected to be at the top of the charts looking at the Big Ten conference,” Wiggins said. “And when we go out, we play our game plan and we execute plays, we get the results we want.”