Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins power Maryland men’s basketball to back-to-back sweep of Nebraska

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Darryl Morsell missed a three-pointer from the corner and Aaron Wiggins grabbed the contested long-rebound from two crashing Cornhuskers (5-14, 1-11 B1G). The junior guard then gathered and quickly found Eric Ayala on the right wing. 

Ayala stopped to set his feet with no one around him and buried the trey, which extended Maryland’s (13-10, 7-9 B1G) lead to 38-33 with 53 seconds remaining in the first half. 

That sequence captured the essence of the junior tandem’s dominance and flow throughout as they combined for 46 points, 30 of which came in the first half of the Terps 79-71 victory.

“[Aaron Wiggins] and [Eric Ayala] are elite offensive threats that can score from everywhere on the floor,” Morsell said. “That’s one of my jobs as a leader is to keep them confident and keep them going. I know how important them scoring the ball and just them being in tune to the game is to our team.”

Ayala scored a career-high 24 points, while Wiggins tied a career-high with 22. Jairus Hamilton also contributed 13 points off the bench, an indication of his growing confidence after a 15-point performance on Tuesday night.

In addition, Morsell scored his 1000th career point as a Terp in his 100th career start. Fittingly, that bucket came in transition off a steal he forced, as the senior has consistently been the team’s tone setter on the defensive end of the floor.

“Yeah it’s pretty cool right,” head coach Mark Turgeon said of the moment. “It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment. For him to get to 1000 [points] is amazing, shows you how hard he worked.”

The start of the game was eerily similar to Tuesday night as the Terps struggled closing out defensively and the Cornhuskers made them pay for not closing out fast enough. After amounting just 50 points Tuesday, Nebraska scored 18 points in the opening 7:42 fueled by guard Dalano Banton.

While Maryland’s defense didn’t play up to standard for much of the first half, the offense picked up the team’s deficiencies with side-to-side ball movement and constant motion. Four of the Terps first seven field goals came off assists, a present theme all-night as they played with tremendous unselfishness.

“I thought offensively it’s as well as we’ve played, moved the ball, shared the ball and shot the ball maybe all season,” Turgeon said. 

The final 5:18 of the first half the Terps were able to gain a more comfortable lead, keyed by the prolific shooting of Ayala and Wiggins. During that stretch, Ayala and Wiggins scored all 15 of Maryland’s points, helping keep Nebraska at a distance as guard Teddy Allen tried to trim the lead. 

“[Aaron Wiggins] and [Eric Ayala] in that first half were spectacular,” Turgeon said. “Really, really good for us and we needed it because we weren’t really guarding at a high-level in the first half and we needed every bucket.”

After Allen knocked down a triple to make it a one-possession game with 2:18 remaining in the opening frame, Ayala scored five consecutive points and the Terps held the Cornhuskers scoreless to enter the break with a 40-33 lead. That final 2:18 was a prime example of Ayala’s confidence and assertiveness for 40 minutes in the Terps’ victory.

In the second half, Maryland responded to its defensive lapses by forcing seven turnovers that allowed for the team to convert several easy baskets in transition. While the defense executed smart double-teams and played with more active hands, the Terps’ success from behind the arc continued into the closing 20 minutes. 

Effectively combating the Cornhuskers 2-3 zone defense, Maryland shifted the ball on the perimeter including several sequences, which set up Hamilton for spot up three opportunities. The Terps assisted on eight of their 14 made field goals in the second half, making the Cornhuskers pay for defensive lapses and overaggressiveness at times.

“Just everybody touching the ball getting into the paint making plays, everybody being unselfish and giving up their shot for the next guy,” Ayala said. “I think there was one play where the ball ended up changing sides 3 or 4 times.”

As Maryland’s offense was fueled by terrific ball movement and the defense forced Nebraska into tougher looks, the Terps continued to surge extending their lead to as much as 21 in the second half.

Nebraska continued to battle, cutting the lead to single-digits in the final two minutes, but the Terps’ efficient offensive execution and exquisite ball and body movement proved too much to overcome.

“I think it gives us a lot of confidence, guys played well,” Wiggins said of the three-game winning streak. “These wins I feel like we needed them and we were pressed to get them. Guys were locked in and we took care of business.”