Suffocating defense leads Maryland men’s basketball to 63-54 victory over UCONN in First Round of NCAA Tournament

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

UCONN forward Adama Sanogo sprinted out to contest Donta Scott just outside the three-point line. Scott utilized a shot fake and beelined towards the paint as he levitated from just beyond the restricted area for a thunderous throwdown jam.

That dunk sent the Maryland bench and faithful into euphoria at Mackey Arena as Maryland’s lead extended to 45-32 with 14:16 remaining. Maryland’s defense suffocated the Huskies’ throughout packing the paint not allowing prolific guard James Bouknight to find a rhythm in the 63-54 victory.

Darryl Morsell often served as the primary defender, but Maryland’s defensive strategy to pack the paint proved effective. The Terps suffocated the Huskies throughout, limiting them to just 32.8% shooting overall and 31.8% from three. With the victory Maryland has now won its first round NCAA Tournament matchup 14 of its last 15 appearences.

“Our guys played with great toughness and really defended,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Our defense continued to get better as the game went on.”

Eric Ayala led Maryland’s offense throughout with 23 points, on an efficient 8-14 from the field and 3-5 from three. Aaron Wiggins tacked on 14 points, while Scott added 12 points and four rebounds in a resurgent performance. Hakim Hart also provided a spark down the stretch with back-to-back clutch baskets.

Entering Saturday night’s contest, UCONN was one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the country and that was on full display, as the Huskies had 22 offensive rebounds, but amounted just 11 second-chance points. On the game’s opening possession, the Huskies grabbed four offensive rebounds leading to a wide open three for R.J. Cole.

However, Maryland managed to counteract UCONN’s offensive rebounding prowess with Ayala spearheading the offensive attack early on. The junior guard scored 11 of the team’s first 15 points, finding success both driving downhill and shooting from behind the arc.

“Just taking what the defense gives me, they were kind of giving me the lane,” Ayala said. “When they sagged off, I think I hit a few jump shots. Just whatever the team needed.”

As the first half progressed, Bouknight started to percolate bringing the Huskies’ offense some success. Back-to-back triples from Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney gave the Huskies a 19-18 with 7:56 remaining in the first half. 

However, the remainder of the first half it was all Maryland as the Terps closed the half on a 15-3 run. That stretch was fueled by stifling defense plus effective offense making the Huskies’ pay for lapses defensively. Over that period, UCONN missed 15 of its final 16 shots of the half, unable to take the lid off the basket. 

Ayala started the run with his second triple of the game, indicative of the Terps’ prolific three-point shooting in the first half. Scott and Wiggins promptly followed that up with back-to-back threes, part of the Terps’ 6-of-8 shooting from three in the first half.

“Guys were fresh and we played inside out,” Turgeon said. “We did a really nice job of getting in the paint and making some plays and getting guys open looks.”

After over four minutes without a basket, Tyler Polley stopped the bleeding for the Huskies with a three. That basket with 3:38 remaining was the Huskies final one of the first half, trailing by 11 at the break. Despite grabbing 18 offensive rebounds, UCONN shot a porous 25% from the field and only amounted nine second-chance points off those opportunities.

Sensing it needed a spark, the Huskies responded first out of the break with back-to-back buckets trimming the lead to single digits. 

However, Maryland delivered a response of its own with seven consecutive points by Ayala and Wiggins pushing the lead to 14. Cole and Sanogo responded with baskets to trim the deficit, but Maryland’s offense was rejuvenated by a pair of dunks from Wiggins and Scott that electrified both the bench and fans. 

In a tight defensive battle, Gaffney cut Maryland’s lead to nine with 7:46 remaining on a pair of free throws. Soon after, the Huskies’ momentum was thwarted as Wiggins buried a corner three off an out of bounds play extending Maryland’s lead to 53-41 with seven minutes remaining.

The ensuing 4:07, the Terps’ offense was stymied due to stagnation and lack of ball movement. During that period UCONN’s offense thrived as Gaffney, Polley and Bouknight each converted a basket that trimmed Maryland’s 12-point lead to five with 2:53 remaining.

In need of a basket, Maryland went back to Ayala. As he did all night the junior drove hard downhill towards the basket and drew contact. He buried both free throws followed by a pair of free throws from Morsell in the one-and-one situation that extended the lead to nine with 2:12 remaining.

With time winding down, Maryland’s defense remained stifling, ending the Huskies’ season silencing their comeback hopes. 

Hart put the finishing touches on the win with a pair of important lay-ups down the stretch, cementing the Terps’ victory and a meeting with No. 2 seed Alabama in the Round of 32 on Monday.

“A lot of people didn’t think much of us, a lot of experts didn’t think we’d win this game,” Ayala said. “That’s the most soaking in moment for me. No matter what barriers people try to put on me or my team all year we’ve just been fighting.”

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