The lead Maryland men’s basketball had built was being torn apart by Jamison Battle, who sought to spoil Maryland’s senior day single-handedly.
Battle had just silenced the Terp faithful with a swished three-point shot that cut Maryland’s lead, 70-68. But Eric Ayala made sure not to squander the moment. He made sure his team would leave with the win, returning on the opposite end of the floor with a three of his own — in front of his ecstatic bench.
“I was ready to knock that down,” Ayala said, “ … I huddled the guys up and told them: ‘we’ve been here before … we gotta focus and finish strong.’”
It was fittingly the final meaningful play on the Terps’ senior night. A evening in which Maryland (15-15, 7-12 B1G) prevailed for the second straight night at home over Minnesota (13-15, 4-15 B1G), 84-73, basking in the adoration of their fans as Ayala, Fatts Russell, Xavier Green and Simon Wright bid their final farewell at Xfinity Center.
“It’s always nice to win a senior night game,” interim head coach Danny Manning said.
The seniors did their best to show out early. The first half, brimming with half court dominance and highlight plays, saw Maryland and Minnesota trade blows for the full 20 minutes.
The Gophers had threes, while Maryland had a two-point approach that got them close to the cup. Maryland delivered a generous quantity of Ayala dribble-drives and Russell combo moves to leave the Minnesota defense scrambling in the lane, however, moderate lead separation didn’t occur until Maryland hit its first three midway through the opening half.
At that point, the Gophers had already drained six of their first 11. It’s first six made field goals were all three-pointers, but it would only convert one more before halftime. Jamison Battle and Payton Willis were to blame, combining for 30 of Minnesota’s 37 first half points and 60 of their final 73.
Xavier Green was the man to flip the Terps fortunes from distance. Green’s triple off a kick-out feed from Russell gave Maryland a lead it grasped on for the rest of the half — and for the rest of the night — making only two more for the 10 remaining minutes that followed and three more for the final 20, as Minnesota closely trailed, tapering off in three-point efficiency but still proving to be willing to take plenty.
Maryland’s 28-6 lead in paint scoring and three rebound advantage in the first half held strong, setting a standard that was maintained for the rest of the contest. Equipped with the same approach in the second half, Maryland outscored the Gophers 46-16 in the paint.
“That’s always an emphasis; force paint touches by the pass or by the dribble,” Manning said.
Minnesota had a three-point game that betrayed it and had almost no alternatives, while Maryland’s lack of a three-point shot forced it to seek tougher, hard-fought shots. This included forcing fouls and free throw opportunities by Hakim Hart, who dropped eight of his team-high 19 points at the charity stripe.
Battle continued to spark the Gophers, scoring all 14 of their first second half points, but the tactic was far from sustainable against Maryland. Every other shot from his teammates banged and clanked off the rim for Minnesota, as Battle worked to a career high 39 points off of seven made threes.
“He was on fire,” Russell said. “He was making some tough shots, over heads, over two people. All credit to him. He had a hell of a game.”
Between Green, Russell and Hart, no one managed to properly guard Battle, but it never mattered.
As Russell and Ayala took an unusual back seat later in the contest until Ayala cashed in his final three of the night, underclassmen Julian Reese and Hart buoyed the Terps to their largest lead of the night (13), doing as their graduating teammates did in the half before. Reese took advantage of his 6-foot-10 frame and bullied the Gophers undersized frontcourt — without Gopher big man Eric Curry — to thrive off his post hooks and scored eight of his 12 in the final half.
After Ayala’s final three closed the contest, the game had its poetic finish for the seniors. Russell and Ayala got to check out to the bench to standing ovations, Simon Wright checked in for Green, who gestured his ‘X’ one last time on his way to the sideline.
Seconds later, the final buzzer sounded and the Terps’ officially delivered a meaningful sendoff for the seniors and captured a long awaited .500 record.