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Maryland heads to the Big Ten tournament knowing it needs a miracle

Maryland heads to the Big Ten tournament knowing it needs a miracle

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

Maryland’s Julian Reese stared in frustration at the scoreboard during his team’s loss to Penn State in Sunday night’s regular season finale. Eager to join his teammates on the court, the hobbled junior forward instead remained on the bench while the Terrapins continued their descent into becoming an NCAA tournament afterthought following an 85-69 loss in State College, Pa.

Maryland’s leading rebounder (9.7 per game) and second-leading scorer (13.9) missed his first game of the season with a sore ankle, and his status for Wednesday’s opener in the Big Ten tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis remains uncertain, according to Coach Kevin Willard. Maryland needs everything to go its way as it seeks to win five games in as many days to secure a long shot NCAA tournament berth to conclude what has been a disappointing season.

Twelfth-seeded Maryland (15-16) plays No. 13 seed Rutgers (15-16) in the first round, knowing full well anything short of a conference tournament championship means missing out on the NCAA tournament on the heels of last season’s appearance in which it lost to top-seeded Alabama in the round of 32.

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Wednesday will mark the first time Maryland and Rutgers meet in the Big Ten tournament since both teams joined the league in 2014. The teams split the regular season series, with the Terrapins winning the more recent matchup, 63-46, in Piscataway, N.J., on Feb. 25 behind Reese’s game-high 20 points.

Maryland heads into its second Big Ten tournament under Willard having lost three in a row and five of six. Four of those losses have been by an average of 5.3 points, underscoring a maddening trend that doomed the regular season for the Terrapins, who finished 1-6 in games decided by one possession.

“We’ve obviously been really frustrated and disappointed with so many of our close losses that our focus right now is just, ‘Let’s take one game at a time,’” Willard said. “It’s really just as simple as that. If we can beat Rutgers and get past Rutgers, all right, then we’ve got to deal with [No. 5 seed] Wisconsin. This time of the year, I think my biggest thing is to get them really focused on Rutgers.”

No matter whether Reese is in the lineup, Willard indicated he plans to lean heavily on other veteran starters for stability, most notably fifth-year seniors Jahmir Young and Donta Scott. Scott scored a team-high 20 points in Maryland’s Big Ten tournament opener last season to spark a victory over Minnesota in the second round before the Terrapins lost to Indiana in the quarterfinals.

Scott is third on the Terrapins in scoring this season (11.3) but closed the regular season having reached double figures once in the final three games. Scott went just 10 for 33 (30.3 percent) from the field in that time, including scoring eight points in 20 minutes in the finale against the Nittany Lions.

Young also is seeking to begin the Big Ten tournament with a far more productive showing than he had in the regular season finale, after he scored 16 points on 4-for-14 shooting with Penn State’s Ace Baldwin Jr., the Big Ten defensive player of the year, guarding him. Maryland’s leading scorer (20.8) missed all five of his three-point attempts and matched his second-lowest point total in the past 10 games.

The Upper Marlboro, Md., native and former DeMatha standout has done his best work away from Xfinity Center, however, including three games of at least 30 points. Over his past nine road games, Young is averaging 25.8 points and shooting 44.5 percent, including 38.5 percent on three-pointers.

“Just keeping our minds and our spirits up,” Scott said about the team’s postseason outlook. “The season didn’t go as well as we wanted it to be, but just trying to keep our heads high and looking forward to the Big Ten tournament and looking to make a run there because I know we can do it.”

To claim its first Big Ten tournament championship since it joined the conference will require Maryland to match its longest winning streak this season, when it won five in a row in December. The Terrapins have never advanced to the Big Ten championship game.

The deepest Maryland has gone is to the semifinals in 2015 and 2016, its first two seasons in the league. The Terrapins have reached the quarterfinals in three of the past four seasons, but this is the first time they will be forced to play on the tournament’s opening night.

The highest seed to even win the Big Ten tournament was No. 8 Michigan in 2017, when the event took place in Washington.

“I think frustration led to the second half of Indiana [an 83-78 loss on senior day] and [Sunday] night” against Penn State, Willard said. “I do think the great thing about [the] postseason is you can flip the switch.”

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