Imbued with confidence and energy leftover from its assertive win over a ranked Illinois team, Maryland men’s basketball rushed to its best start since its last meeting with the Scarlet Knights. However, as they painfully learned in their initial meeting against Rutgers, it’s the finish that matters.
Behind the combined play of Eric Ayala and Fatts Russell, Maryland (11-9, 3-6 B1G) averted another blown lead and finished its second meeting with Rutgers in convincing fashion. And with the duo’s total 45 points and ten of Maryland’s season-best 12 threes of the night, the Terps throttled Rutgers in the closing half and consequently the game, 68-60.
“We talked about, going into the game, playing tip to horn,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “And I thought this was one of those games where we played tip the horn.”
After Russell splashed back-to-back threes in transition just before the last media timeout of the opening half, Maryland held an imposing 20-point lead.
But Geo Baker, in spite of minimal help from his running mate, Ron Harper Jr. worked to cut that lead to 12 just before the half with a pair of run-starting triples of his own.
At halftime, Ayala and Russell combined for 20 points, Qudus Wahab finished all four of his touches in the paint for eight more and the Terps were shooting well over 50% from the field as a unit, yet they were still at risk of suffering a similar fate to their last Rutgers contest just ten days before Tuesday — with momentum in favor of the opponent and a dominant lead dwindling.
Their lead was a product of more than offense, but mixed defense — 3-2 zone and man — that kept Harper with limited looks and an offense that did more than score, but forced both Harper and Paul Mulcahy into foul trouble.
Harper’s teammates struggled too, but Baker made sure to keep the Scarlet Knights comeback hopes going with 14 of Rutgers 26 first half points. Because of Baker and because of the time left in the contest, Maryland’s commanding start was reduced to a, 38-26, lead and the Scarlet Knights were alive.
“We were just talking back-and-forth to each other like ‘we been here before,'” Russell said of the locker room conversation at halftime. “We told each other that even if they make a shot, we can’t let the crowd feel like it’s an eight point shot instead of a two or three point shot.”
The Terps had designs to finish the game just as they started it; efficiently and forcefully. Or with their foot on the gas, as Russell said after the game. So Ayala and Russell continued to kindle the hot shooting start of the opening period.
For the entire second half, except for two field goals, the two lead guards traded baskets. The threes came in bunches with the rare drive to the basket and midrange jumper littered in between.
Ayala stretched his range and fired from every corner of the arc and even splashed a deep triple from the Rugters logo en route to 200 career threes. Ayala became the fifth Terp ever to reach the mark. The Terps’ most tenured athlete finished with five threes and hit four of them in the second half.
“It’s just confidence, pretty much,” Ayala said of his most recent success from deep. “Just going with the game, going with the flow of the game as it was coming — being aggressive.”
Russell performed similarly, finishing with five of his own, picking his spots and dropping deep shoots off the dribble and off the catch.
Baker regressed, scoring just two points in the final 20 minutes, Harper improved, scoring 12. With two meager efforts from its shot-creators, Rutgers struggled to match the lead-stretching flurry of threes. Maryland maintained its double-digit lead until the waning seconds of the second half, making a statement on the road and finishing a job they didn’t ten days earlier.
“We’ve gotten better since the last time we played this talented Rutgers team,” Manning said. “[I’m just proud of the groups belief and fight for each other.”