Maryland men’s basketball had met its equal and the Terps guards were the difference.
At each break, barring the games completion — halftime, end of regulation, end of first overtime — the two sides were tied. And, because of the guard play, the Terps stood as the team that finished on top.
“The mindset is to go from tip to horn,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “And we were good in that regard. In terms of just staying locked and staying together and connected.”
In the Terps (9-7, 1-4 B1G) first Big Ten win of the season, a 94-87 win over Northwestern (8-6, 1-4 B1G), Eric Ayala soared to a career high 26 points and 11 boards, Hakim Hart steadied the offense with a quiet 18 points and Fatts Russell dominated the two overtime periods with 13 of Maryland’s game-winning 22 points.
“All of our other games was kind of like this, but we just fell short,” Russell said. “And today I feel like we fought all the way to the end.”
Throughout the second half, a back-and-forth affair ensued and runs were exchanged. Then, Ayala began testing his range. Once again, on two consecutive scoring plays, like he had done on many occasions prior, Ayala stepped back for three before subsequently stepping into a 30-footer. After Northwestern erased the lead he created with his play, he created another with his fifth three of the game. This time, he swished a three drifting to his left.
But even as Ayala tied his career high with his 24th point, continued to balloon the lead and seemingly seal the game, the Terps still managed to make matters worse for themselves and welcome Northwestern back into the contest.
Less than a minute remained and the Terps were up six points.
Miscommunication on defense allowed Northwestern’s Pete Nance to trim the lead to three with a triple. A Donta Scott flagrant foul gave the Wildcats another pair of free points. A poor rotation followed by a foul gave the Wildcats a chance to take the lead with 11 seconds. But Northwestern could only tie, sending the two deadlocked teams to overtime — twice.
This time Russell came through down the stretch, slashing to the basket, hitting the three point play that sent the game to its second overtime and the three point play that iced the contest.
Both scores were plays he made deep in the paint, weaving through the towering big men Northwestern threw at him. He scored his vitalizing 13 overtime points in spite of sustaining four fouls just before the end of regulation.
“That was big time,” Ayala said. “He was getting those fouls and I was like ‘bro we need you out here bro … ’ He’s just aggressive, we got aggressive guys and sometimes they get on the wrong end of the whistle.”
Maryland men’s basketball was a little over a month removed from when they initially played Northwestern on Dec. 5, and things went demonstrably better in the Terps second bout against the Wildcats.
Like their first meeting, Hart stood out as the offense’s consistent force. Unlike their initial meeting, Ayala made sure to join and drain huge shots throughout the opening half and for the rest of the game.
Before the halftime break, Ayala buried an and-one three and an and-one layup on consecutive scoring possessions, Hart made his first three shots and the pair finished the half with 10 points apiece.
Like their first meeting, the Wildcats held the lead for the majority of the opening period. Unlike the Terps’ Big Ten debut, and every Big Ten contest since, Maryland didn’t stumble to a slow start and avoided surrendering a crushing deficit and battled its way throughout the contest.
Maryland and Northwestern were awfully alike and the Terps took advantage. The Wildcats didn’t boast any 20-point scorers or player of the year candidates and were also searching for a win to conclude their own three-game skid.
And after fittingly ending the half knotted at 30 points, the Terps began showcasing their improvements from their initial meeting. The offense had a response for every Northwestern score, ending with 10 made threes on 42% shooting from the field. The defense maintained reasonable discipline, despite Scott and Julian Reese fouling out, and kept the Wildcats best scorers in check — outside of Nance, who dropped 28 points — and Northwestern within arms reach.
“But this is where we got to take the next step,” Ayala said. “So I definitely think we took the next step today and are heading towards the right direction.”