- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2021

As Hakim Hart slapped his hands together while skipping back down the floor, the Maryland bench erupted. And when Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called for a timeout — attempting to quell the Terrapins’ 9-2 run — those celebrations spilled onto the floor.

The Spartans had worked their way back into Sunday’s game, but once they got within five points with under 10 minutes remaining, Hart’s fast-break layup gave Maryland room again. His trey capped the stretch that pushed his team to another double-digit advantage.

Those timely shots kept Michigan State at bay, preserving a 73-55 victory that started with dominant defense and ended with the Terrapins’ fifth straight win. As the regular season creeps to a close — there are just two matchups left — coach Mark Turgeon’s team’s NCAA tournament resume looks even stronger.

“I didn’t see this coming this quickly, in five games getting to this point,” Turgeon said. “We’ve made a huge jump, obviously.”

On the final day of February, the Terrapins capped a strong month in which they won six of eight matchups, including one over then-No. 24 Purdue. There were two wins against Nebraska, another against Minnesota and Rutgers, and then Sunday’s strong showcase in the squad’s penultimate home game of the campaign.

Heading into the contest, Turgeon said guard Darryl Morsell was a game-time decision after his shoulder partially came out of the socket last week against Rutgers. But Morsell was in the starting lineup come tipoff, and he quickly set the tone for the Terrapins’ outing on both ends.

Morsell splashed a three out of the gate and played a key role in smothering Michigan State’s offense early. The Spartans didn’t score for over six minutes, opening the contest missing six shots — five of which came from beyond the arc.

Meanwhile, Maryland shot 60% from three-point range in the first 20 minutes, and guard Eric Ayala led the first-half scoring with 10 points. He finished the game with a team-high 22, with 13 of those coming from the free-throw line. Aaron Wiggins added 13 points — including a 360-degree dunk with a minute left — and Morsell chipped in 11 points.

“To find rhythm, hit some shots early, was big,” Morsell said. “But I think our defense is just as good as anybody’s in the country.”

For just the second time in a Big Ten game this season, Maryland entered the break with a double-digit lead. But Michigan State whittled that down to begin the second half, and the Terrapins went over five minutes without a field goal.

Maryland drew fouls when they drove to the rim, though, keeping Turgeon’s squad ahead. When the Spartans cut the edge to seven points, forward Galin Smith’s block sparked a fast-break lay-in for Hart. The sophomore guard then converted an acrobatic layup after Michigan State cut the lead to just five points with under 10 minutes to play — the tightest the score had been since the 17:48 mark in the first half.

“I think I just got big-time genes, I guess,” Hart said jokingly. “I just be playing.”

And Hart pushed Maryland’s lead back to double figures with a trey late to cap a 9-2 run with about five minutes left. Those big shots — part of his 10 points — coupled with another standout overall defensive showing to secure a fifth straight victory.

That winning streak puts the Terrapins in a strong position for a tournament berth, when at one point the team stood at 3-7 during the first two months of the Big Ten slate. Then February came, and with it, a reversal.

“Not getting overly excited,” Ayala said. “There’s definitely a bigger picture. It’s just one stepping stone for what we want to do.”

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