Late first half surge and suffocating defense propel No. 3 Maryland to dominant 72-51 win over Notre Dame

Spotting up from the right side of the three-point line, Aaron Wiggins recognized his shot wasn’t going to find the bottom of the net. As soon as the ball left his hands, Wiggins made a beeline towards the basket and soared for an emphatic putback jam at the buzzer. 

“I saw him shoot a three and I thought it went in but then I just saw him out of nowhere trying to get the rebound,” Jalen Smith said of Wiggins’ dunk. “I was like ‘wow’.”

The play electrified the near-full Xfinity Center while also showcasing both Wiggins’ intelligence and elite athleticism. It also capped off an impressive final five minutes for the Terps in which they outscored Notre Dame 16-7 and took a 32-20 halftime lead. Maryland continued their strong play leading to a dominant 72-51 victory.

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Through nearly 16 minutes of play, Maryland only had 14 points — finding open looks, but struggling to take the lid off the basket. The Terps trailed 9-4 early and started 0-10 from downtown. Eric Ayala drilled the team’s first three with 3:27 remaining in the first half. His triple was part of an individual 7-0 run that put Maryland up by eight. 

However, Ayala’s most electrifying highlight came a little later in the period. After deflecting a pass, Jalen Smith found Ayala in transition, who aggressively drove to the basket and threw down an electric contact dunk over Rex Pflueger. Immediately after, Ayala let out a scream to the electric Xfinity Center crowd.

“I’m still a little surprised myself, I put a lot of work this offseason in my body and it’s starting to payoff,” Ayala said. “It’s all coming along.” 

Both highlight reel dunks demonstrated Maryland’s offensive aggressiveness in the latter stages of the first half, with the Terps driving to the basket at will. Riding the increased aggressiveness, the Terps made eight of their last nine shots to close out the first half and raising their previously dismal field-goal percentage by 20%.

“The way we finished the half was terrific, because it was a three-point game and I said: ‘guys let’s get it to seven or eight at halftime,’ ” head coach Mark Turgeon said.

While the Terps offensive aggressiveness heightened towards the end of the first half, their defense was stifling all game long. Outside of forward John Mooney, the Fighting Irish struggled to score, with the remaining seven players combining for 34 points. Even Mooney, who finished with a team-high 17 points, struggled to find open looks. Smith was dominant on both ends of the floor, finishing with 15 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and tying a career-high with five blocks.

“[Smith] was phenomenal on defense in the second half, rebounding and blocking shots,” Turgeon said.

While Smith was impressive down low, the Terps defense as a unit did an excellent job rotating out to shooters. The Fighting Irish finished the night shooting 29 percent overall and 26 percent from behind the arc, a common theme for opponents facing Maryland thus far.

“[Maryland] kind of smothered us, I don’t think it was us missing shots,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey explained. “We didn’t get many clean looks. They’re long, they switch stuff and they take up space.”

Building on the final five minutes of the first half, Maryland opened the second half on an 8-2 run to take a commanding 40-22 lead. Brey called timeout to reset his team, but ultimately Maryland’s size and depth proved to be too much. 

 “I think Eric’s dunk is what gave us the momentum for the rest of the first half and just going into the second half,” Darryl Morsell said.

Notre Dame enjoyed a brief run to cut the deficit to 11, but another 8-2 stretch by the Terps put the game out of reach with 13:34 remaining. Anthony Cowan knocked down his only three of the game during the outburst, and Maryland’s dominant defense continued to impress. The Fighting Irish had to earn every single basket, taking either contested or last-second shots.

Maryland is now 9-0 for the first time since the 1998-99 season and will need to maintain similar defensive intensity with the start of Big Ten play on Saturday against Illinois.

 

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