Maryland men’s basketball returns to its winning ways in final non-conference matchup against La Salle

Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

With an 11-point lead and a wide open court ahead of him, a chance to set up the offense seemed to be the play of choice. Instead, a sprinting Eric Ayala dribbled the ball just once before he noticed fellow guard Hakim Hart streaking from the right corner. A perfectly placed lob by Ayala made for an emphatic finish by Hart and a cozier lead for the home team. 

An effective fastbreak is often a product of an equally impressive defensive effort. Defense was exactly what opened the game up for the Terps and ultimately led to a Maryland victory. At home, Maryland (5-2, 0-1 B1G) was able to snap a two game losing streak with a 84-71 win against La Salle, their final non conference opponent. 

“Our guys had fun tonight,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We took a step in the right direction and we got better tonight.”

To start, Mayland played a new brand of high energy basketball. The ball was moving, shots were falling, and most importantly, Maryland’s defense looked the best it had all season thus far. The Terps, as they made their way to a nine-point lead, allowed just seven Explorers field goals in the first 10 minutes of the half while shooting 50 percent from the field on the opposite end of the court. 

Although Maryland opened up the game comfortably, three-point shooting continued to be a struggling point for the team. Maryland’s inability to hit from behind the arc led to a much less menacing five-point lead. Before the Explorers could assemble a comeback effort, the Terps’ offense reemerged — this time scoring 10 unanswered points to close the first half. Five of the 10 points came off fastbreaks, a newly established feature of Maryland’s offense that had been absent since last season. Three forced turnovers led to easy scoring opportunities for Hart, guard Aaron Wiggins and forward Jairus Hamilton.

“I thought the last five minutes of the first half we were as good as we’ve been all year on defense,” Turgeon said, “We were really good.” 

A stifling defense positioned the Terps with a 15-point lead to enter the final half. However, the Explorers offense made a solid effort in the following period to keep Maryland within reach. La Salle was especially proficient from behind the arc. After totaling just four threes in the previous half, the Explorers hit three in the first four minutes of the second period. La Salle drilled 10 of its 18 triples in the second half. Nonetheless, a concerted response by the Terps, led by Ayala, maintained a Maryland lead. 

In spite of the Explorer offense, it was Ayala who tallied a career-high 23 points and three assists to help keep the Terps in front. The junior guard struggled from the field, along with the rest of the team, shooting below 50 percent for the game and only making two of his eight attempted threes. Lack of success from the field led Ayala to search for a new way to score. His technique at the rim earned him 11 free throw attempts in the second half, of which he drained 10. In total, Ayala accumulated 13 of his points from the charity stripe.

“I was just reading the defense honestly,” Ayala said. “Today I got to the line and got fouled, so it was easier for me to get to the line and make free throws.” 

After eight days of rest, Maryland has improved in perhaps the most essential facet of its game. With its staple defense coming together gradually, Maryland’s odds of faring well in this year’s stacked Big Ten will inevitably improve. Up next, the Terps are set to resume Big Ten play against Purdue on Christmas Day.