Aaron Wiggins had the look he craved. Already with a career-high 26 points on the night, the junior Maryland men’s basketball guard stood all alone in the corner waiting for a pass.
It came from Hakim Hart. Wiggins raised up, looking to extend the Terps’ lead to two possessions with under two minutes remaining. But the attempt rolled off the rim and was quickly headed back the other way.
And when Northwestern got the matchup it desired — the 6-foot-10 Ryan Young on the smaller Wiggins — it pounced. Young outmuscled Wiggins to the hoop, gently laying one in off the backboard for the go-ahead bucket.
Those open misses and matchup disadvantages were all too familiar for the Maryland squad that saw its five-game winning streak snapped. Its old issues — clanged threes, a rash of turnovers, a lack of defensive adjustments — crept to the surface Wednesday night in Evanston, Illinois.
“It’s us. Can’t blame nobody else, we can’t blame coach, … it’s us five on the court,” guard Darryl Morsell said.
The problems were most glaring on the offensive end. The Terps committed 15 turnovers — including five giveaways in six possessions at one point — two off their season high.
The missed open looks from deep, once a staple of the offense, returned. Donta Scott rolled loose off an inbound but found iron. Hakim Hart had the same fortune after shaking his defender. And off a timeout with a chance to take a late lead, Eric Ayala found himself free but bricked it.
Maryland also lacked depth scoring. Coach Mark Turgeon saw improvements from his rotational players — Hart, Jairus Hamilton and Galin Smith — during the winning streak, but all three were conspicuously quiet against Northwestern. Hart tallied six points, while Hamilton and Smith were part of a scoreless night from the bench.
For most of the contest, Wiggins and Morsell kept the Terps afloat, combining for 40 of the team’s 55 points.
“We had two guys play well, I’m not gonna mention names,” Turgeon said. “The rest of us weren’t very good. Frustrating night.”
While the offense took the biggest step back, Maryland’s vaunted defense also showed holes. After locking down the Wildcats in the game’s opening minutes, the Terps began to lose their men.
Northwestern exploited Maryland’s switches on the physical Young, kicking it out to waiting and willing three-point shooters. And though the Wildcats only shot 34.5 percent from long range, they kept trying, with 10 of those deep balls finding net.
When Turgeon’s squad began guarding more earnestly on the outside, Northwestern created confusion with motion, letting Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Pete Nance take over.
“We was trying to switch it up, double, not double … They were kicking, making a lot of threes, getting good shots,” Morsell said. “Hey, it’s what we’re gonna see if we keep playing.”
And at this crucial juncture in the season, that’s all the more important for the Terps to keep in mind. Wednesday’s loss was a setback in their road to the postseason.
They will face adversity time and again throughout March as the opponents get tougher and pick up on their tendencies. It’s how Maryland responds to those struggles that will determine its ultimate fate.
“We gotta do a better job making sure we’re ready when the ball goes up,” Wiggins said.