With Maryland basketball leading 69-62 and 4:55 remaining, Eric Ayala drove aggressively to the basket and was fouled by Xavier Simpson. Although neither of his foul shots found the net, Ayala snatched the loose ball in between two Wolverines. Grabbing the rebound, he turned and fed fellow sophomore Aaron Wiggins for an open three, which extended Maryland’s lead to 10 once again.
The sequence encapsulated Ayala’s confidence and assertiveness all-night long in Maryland’s 83-70 victory over Michigan, as the Terps clinched a share of the Big Ten Regular Season Title for the first time since joining the conference.
“That’s the [Ayala] of last year, when we’ve played well at home he’s made some big shots,” head coach Mark Turgeon said.
It was one of several strong offensive sequences for Maryland down the stretch, in a game where its half-court offense shined. The Terps shot 56% overall and 40% from behind the arc, both well above their season-averages. Four Terps finished in double-figures as “Stix” recorded his 21st double-double of the season.
Maryland’s offense found a groove early, comparative to previous games where they started slow. While the Terps started out fast, the Wolverines hit their shots, led by Franz Wagner, who showcased his outside shooting touch.
After Michigan jumped out to a 7-4 lead, the Terps executed a 14-2 run over the ensuing seven minutes, showing excellent intensity on both ends of the floor. Ayala and Cowan were pivotal during the run, running Maryland’s offensive sets and playing with active hands on the perimeter.
Over the remainder of the first half, Michigan never got closer than five, unable to stop the Terps’ unselfish offense. David Dejulius kept Michigan in it with 13 first half points including three free throws to cut the deficit to ten with 3.7 seconds remaining in the first half.
However, Jalen Smith immediately seized back momentum for Maryland. He caught an inbounds pass, dribbled up the floor and then buried a three from several feet behind the arc, giving the Terps a 41-28 halftime lead. That completed an offensive clinic in the first half for the Terps, where they shot 57 percent from the field with eight assists and just three turnovers.
Both Cowan and “Stix” were prolific in the first half, combining for 21 points. Jalen Smith asserted himself on the block defensively, while also displaying his versatility offensively opening up driving lanes for teammates.
Throughout the first half, Cowan took what the defense gave him, shooting an efficient 5-6 from the field. Compounding his effective offense, Cowan played strong perimeter defense, despite having to guard the much taller Isaiah Livers on several possessions.
In need of a spark trailing by double-digits, Michigan opened up the second half outscoring Maryland 12-6 sharing the wealth offensively. However, as they did all night long, Maryland continued to make timely shots.
Building on their strong opening five minutes, the Wolverines executed a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to 56-53 with 10:21 remaining keyed by Wagner and Livers. Just when Michigan had gained momentum, Ayala stepped up again to put a dagger in the Wolverines comeback hopes. He confidently drilled a step back three from straight on, extending the Terps lead to 62-53, re-energizing the Xfinity Center. DeJulius answered back with two free throws, but another Ayala three kept Maryland in firm advantage with 6:54 remaining.
“It was a big momentum booster, it was really big for us to get it from that seven-point lead to ten,” Wiggins said. “Eric was phenomenal all-day long, he was playing comfortable, playing his game and I was really happy to see him go out there and take care of business.”
The remainder of the game, Maryland’s offense continued to execute at a high level. Michigan wouldn’t go away, as DeJulius continued to keep them afloat, but Wiggins and Ayala’s critical shots down the stretch helped the Terps maintain the lead.
With both teams going scoreless for over three minutes, Wagner finally ended the drought with 1:22 remaining. However, it was too late as Maryland made their free throws down the stretch.
In firm control of the game, with 26 seconds remaining Turgeon took out Cowan and brought in seniors Will Clark and Travis Valmon for their final appearance at the Xfinity Center. The duo was met with a rousing applause and Cowan exited the floor to a massive hug from Turgeon, completing a remarkable four years for the senior on his home floor.
Shortly after the final buzzer sounded, the Terps gathered at center court for a smile and confetti filled celebration, completing their daunting regular season schedule with a share of the conference championship. Cutting down both nets at the Xfinity Center, the Terps rejoiced with fans and families alike, still determined to accomplish their long-term goals moving forward.
“It can’t get much better than that, to win it in especially on senior night in front of friends and family,” Cowan said. “It’s huge.”