In the opening play of the second half, Hakim Hart read the passing lane perfectly, extending his long arms to disrupt an entry pass from a Lehigh guard. Unable to retain possession of the bounce pass that he deflected out of bounds, Hart rested his hands on his head in disbelief.
But his team desperately needed his effort. So he kept his composure and got the steal and possession in the play that immediately followed, setting a standard of defense that the Terps had lacked in the opening period.
“[Hart] is always like that, especially in practice,” Donta Scott said. “He’s always in the passing lane, getting those steals and stuff like that. But just knowing that Hakim’s ability transfers into the game as well … it’s pretty nice to see.”
As Maryland men’s basketball (7-4, 0-1 B1G) worked to get its legs under itself, eventually surging past Lehigh (1-10) with a, 76-55, win, Hart wreaked havoc on the defensive side with a career-high five steals and a block and Eric Ayala had a stellar night of his own, dropping a game-high 20 points.
“I thought our guys did a terrific job of responding in the second half,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “I thought we had a really good balance. Offensively, we got contributions across the board from a lot of different guys. And so that’s always something that you’re happy to see as a staff.”
It was unclear whether these two teams would play until two days before tip-off. But It was clear, as Lehigh took control in the opening minutes, that this game was necessary.
The Terps, understandably, looked like they hadn’t played in 16 days and the defense suffered as a result. The Terps allowed the Mountain Hawks to attack the basket at will. Their lack of energy was glaring through their flat-footed responses to Lehigh’s cutting and driving.
Xfinity Center was quiet, too. Not only because the fan attendance was low given the state of the country and the winter break on campus, but because the Terps were awfully mute on the defensive side.
The results were an efficient start and finish to the first half and a very real upset opportunity for a one-win Lehigh team that was shooting a promising 45% from the field.
It looked like Maryland would run away with control in the first period with an 18-5 run, but it’s double-digit lead was quelled by another defensive stalling that led to the Terps entering halftime with a delicate, 34-37, lead.
“First half we came out a little lackadaisical,” Scott said. “But the second half, we picked up our energy and we basically just came together and just pushed.”
Ayala’s seven point, two minute outburst helped make the initial 18-point run possible. His early six points in the second half had a much more impactful effect, snowballing Maryland’s advantage to a double-digit lead it never looked back from.
Ayala’s presence was felt at all levels of the floor. The Terps’ leader scored 20 total, finding the bottom of the net in the paint, drawing fouls, converting his free throws and splashing three threes from behind the arc — all while shooting 61% from the field.
“I’m just happy we winning,” Ayala said of his performance. “That’s all I could ask for. We winning.”
The defense was much improved, too. The Terps flew to the ball and were increasingly vocal and attentive, allowing just five made field goals in the final 20 minutes after letting up 14 in the first half. Lehigh shot a lifeless 17% from the floor in the closing half.
After Ayala opened up the half to drop a quick six points and put the Terps up 11, the home team extended the lead to 15 at the final half’s midpoint and 21 at the conclusion of the game.
“Just taking it one game at a time, just trying to get a win,” Ayala said. “We’re trying to change the narrative on our season and I think we’re on the right trajectory as a team.”