Rutgers’ rout of Maryland could be March Madness difference-maker

Rutgers’ rout of Maryland could be March Madness difference-maker

This is what a 29-year drought that could soon be ending sounds like. This is what it feels like. Facing a top-10 team with big March plans didn’t matter. Recent struggles were insignificant.

All that mattered was that the sellout crowd could sense the importance of Tuesday night and expressed it with sheer volume, and the Rutgers players responded by treating their 40 minutes on the floor with incredible urgency.

Maryland entered this showdown leading the Big Ten, arguably the best conference in the country. But the ninth-ranked Terrapins were just another punching bag on this night. Rutgers, in desperate need of a victory, put together its finest performance of the season at its most pivotal moment, thrashing Maryland 78-67 for a win that might be the difference between dancing for the first time since 1991 and having to settle for the letdown that is the NIT.

It could come down to Rutgers (19-11, 10-9), which visits Purdue on Saturday before next week’s Big Ten Tournament, winning a game away from the RAC, where it finished off a 17-1 mark Tuesday night. No team with fewer than three wins away from home has reached the NCAA Tournament since 1994, but Rutgers now has wins over likely tournament teams Penn State, Seton Hall, Maryland, Illinois and Wisconsin. Tuesday’s thorough rout should only enhance the Scarlet Knights’ standing with the selection committee and improve their 34 NET rating.

Either way, the players and fans got to celebrate this moment together — the crowd storming the court at the horn, a celebration seldom scene in Piscataway.

This much is clear. Maryland (23-7, 13-6) didn’t look like a top-10 team against Rutgers. The Terps were held to 20 percent (6 of 30) shooting from 3-point range and couldn’t take much of anything away from Rutgers at the other end of the floor. The Scarlet Knights shot 48 percent from the field and hit 7 of 16 from deep. Jacob Young led the way with 17 points and Montez Mathis added 15, while Maryland star Anthony Cowan Jr. scored a quiet 19 points.

Despite controlling the opening 20 minutes, limiting projected NBA lottery pick Jalen Smith to just three points, Rutgers only led by six at halftime. But the Scarlet Knights never let the Terps get any closer, as the lead was back to double figures 1:29 into the second half. After Ron Harper Jr. drained a 3-pointer, Rutgers was up 13, and the entire building was on its feet. When Young scored in transition, softly dropping in a scoop layup to push the advantage to 17, the RAC was deafening.

The rest of the night was a coronation of this memorable year at the RAC. Rutgers led by 20 at the under-8 timeout. Maryland missed 23 of its first 26 3-pointers. Even with the game in hand, the crowd remained loud, soaking up every bit of what could be its last look at this team, barring an NIT home game.

It remains to be seen whether this win gets Rutgers into its first NCAA Tournament in 29 years, or if a fourth Quadrant 1 home victory will be enough, dominant as Tuesday’s shellacking was.

But there is little doubt that this Rutgers team — the one that has lost only to Michigan at home — belongs among the 68 teams in the dance. It now has to prove it can play like this away from Piscataway. It has two opportunities left. It couldn’t head back out on the road with any more momentum.

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