When expectations are low and the lights are bright, the brilliance of Maryland basketball is typically at full display. Add a little bit of March magic and you get the Terps thorough, 40-minute domination over UCONN.
With their 63-54 win over the No. 7 Huskies, the No. 10 Terps get to stay in Indianapolis to test their luck against No. 2 Alabama in the Round of 32.
And as has been the case all season, the Terps weren’t perfect but played well enough to get the job done.
“It’s been the grind of all grinds for all of us,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “So to be able to keep playing is really great for a team that wasn’t supposed to even make the postseason. It’s good for us.”
Here are my three takeaways from the Terps round one tournament win.
Still no consistency on the glass
For the better part of the entire contest, Maryland was harassed at the glass. And the Huskies success in that area came as no surprise. Prior to the contest, UCONN stood with the fourth highest offensive rebound rate (36.9%) in the tournament field along with a + 4.8 rebound margin.
The Terps, meanwhile, have notoriously struggled in this area, with the lowest offensive rebound rate in the tournament. This is in large part due to the laboring conditions of the competitive Big Ten, but some of it has to do with the small lineup Turgeon has been navigating all season.
“If you’re in our meetings and you’re in our practices that’s what we talked about, [rebounding has] been a battle for us,” Turgeon said. “And the guys just got to have the want-to, to be physical and box out.”
The size disparity and effort proved evident in the Huskies’ first possession. After UConn’s Isaiah Whaley got to the line and missed both, the Huskies grabbed four boards and earned four opportunities to convert.
With their fourth, the Huskies exploited a gassed and disjointed Terps defense and found an open RJ Cole for three to soundly set the tone for the game.
The tone, though seemingly tilted in UCONN’s favor, became increasingly meaningless as UCONN missed from just about everywhere on the court. From three, midrange, or in the paint the shots didn’t fall. The Huskies failure to capitalize off the offensive glass was its undoing.
Regardless, as convenient as it was, it’s not something the Terps can count on moving forward. With its size, Maryland has to work twice as hard to get boards. And though most of the time they won’t get them, it doesn’t excuse the oftentimes relaxed effort that has become common at the end of defensive possessions.
Eventually, the Terps’ fortunes did shift in that area in the second half as effort improved and a new defensive scheme allowed Maryland to retain inside position.
Consequently, the Huskies went from out rebounding the Terps by 13 in the first half to the roles reversing in the final frame with Maryland’s 14 boards outnumbering UCONN’s 12.
Eric Ayala is a certified bucket
Eric Ayala wasn’t interested in going home. And he did just about everything on offense to make sure that was not the case. The junior guard has been making his case as a lead guard all season, but Saturday’s circumstances allowed him to truly display his scoring prowess on a national stage with high stakes.
“It’s do or die at this point,” Ayala said. “You’ve got to leave it all out there. Empty the tank. I wasn’t ready to go home today. I’ve been having a nice time out here, and just the whole environment, it’s just a special place to be.”
While he was tearing apart the Huskies’ defense, it’s possible Ayala had some good fun on the court too. After hitting his first three, he shared some words with the opposing bench. And nearly every time the ball was in his hand, good things happened.
At times he took on the responsibility of attacking the basket and running the half court. At others, he was the bailout shooter late in the clock.
No matter the situation, the result remained the same; the ball found the bottom of the net — even when he was fouled, orchestrating two three-point plays.
Aaron Wiggins also reprised his former role as a spot up shooter and drained four threes on his way to score 14 as Ayala put up 23. The junior duo delivered once more. And as past games have indicated, Maryland will only go as far as the two can take it.
“Coming into this game, I felt like I owe my effort and my energy and everything to basketball, to just come out here and compete,” Ayala said.
Turgeon inked and underlined the word toughness on a white board upon entering the locker room after Maryland’s win.
“That’s who we are!” he yelled, pointing at the prominent black letters on the otherwise blank board.
Turgeon was joined with jubilation and cheers by the athletes seated in front of him. Amongst the players, the word on the white board stood true all season, took many forms and ultimately culminated in Maryland’s upset victory over the Huskies Saturday night.
“It’s the only chance we have,” Turgeon said when asked about the importance of his team’s toughness.
Maryland’s toughness was pronounced as Donta Scott defended two shots in UConn’s final possession of the first half, capping the period off with a staunch effort in which he stuffed a layup after the Huskies grabbed their 18th offensive board.
Toughness was visible all night as Maryland held the Huskies big men to a combined 10 points and aggressively boxed out to out pound UCONN at the glass in the final half.
And as UCONN inched closer in the game’s closing minutes, the Terps mental toughness was palpable as Darryl Morsell fouled out and the Huskies cut the lead to six.
The mental toughness transformed to patience, allowing Hakim Hart to effectively end the night with his cutting layup off a nifty feed by Ayala.
For college basketball, March is often brimming with Madness because of the must-win, eager attitudes of the teams as opposed to the talent of opponents.
In other words, with the right attitude and favorable conditions, just about anyone can win. For the Terps, this is an advantage.
The regular season and the toughness they’ve garnered throughout it has prepared them for the demands of a tournament of this magnitude — and could possibly land them a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.