Magic was in the air Sunday at the Xfinity Center. The National Champion 2002 team was in attendance. And fans surrounded the arena and brought energy to the final buzzer, helping lift Maryland past No. 22 Ohio State, 75-60.
“You felt their presence,” Fatts Russell said of the historic champions. “They came in the locker room. Coach Williams said a couple words. He gave us motivation.”
For the penultimate home game of the season, Maryland left the fans with a game to remember, in large part thanks to their veteran backcourt.
1. Eric Ayala is back to his usual form
Even before his hand injury, Ayala was on a bit of a cold streak. Earlier in the season, he went 11-straight games scoring double-digit points, but recently only has notched two double-digit outings in his past seven games.
At Indiana, just three days removed from Sunday afternoon, Ayala made his first start since his injury against the Hoosiers. Despite playing 28 minutes, he finished with only three points on 1-7 shooting in the Terps’ 15th loss of the season.
This game was a different story.
Before the first half was even over, he already scored more than any other player who was on the court, tapping into a level of offensive dominance that had been missed by Maryland.
“[My hand’s] been feeling a lot better,” Ayala said. “I thank my trainer a lot.”
Ayala finished with 23 points, his second-highest of the season. He showed no fear in playing a physical brand of basketball, whether it was driving to the lane or grabbing six rebounds and added two threes to boot.
“[It’s] something that I kind of put at the front of my mind,” Ayala said of his style of play. “I know it’s going to be physical. I know I’ve got to get in there and rebound. I’ve got to keep making those physical plays. Those kind of plays help us win games.”
2. Fatts Russell continued his impressive streak
Ayala wasn’t the only guard to impact the team in a big way. Russell had his sixth-straight game of scoring 18 or more points and finished with a season-high 27 points.
The speedy guard fed off the energy brought by the former national champions and the electric fans. And Ohio State’s defense couldn’t keep up. When he shot from three, he was efficient, going 6-10. His six threes were the most he had all year.
“It was electric in here,” Russell said. “When they come out like that, it’s hard to beat us in this building.”
If there was any hope that the Buckeyes would come back, Russell sealed the game shut with two clutch threes.
On top of everything else, his stellar performance fell on a night in which he also passed 2,000 career points.
“It’s been a long-fought year,” Russell said. “I’m happy I got to do it with my teammates.”
3. Maryland’s defense stepped up against a high-scoring team
Before the game, interim head coach Danny Manning emphasized that a strong defense was critical for an offense as skilled as Ohio State.
“We’ve got to find different ways to disrupt that rhythm in the halfcourt and then also in the full court,” Manning said prior to the game. “We’ve got to do a really good job of getting back and finding their key players.”
The team took Manning’s words to heart, holding the Buckeyes to their second-lowest field goal percentage of the year (36%). For Maryland, the 36% mark from the floor was the fifth lowest by a Terps’ opponent all season and the second lowest in conference play.
A contributing factor to the lacking success was the Buckeyes lagging fulcrum. EJ Liddell, Ohio State’s star forward, was unable to get going all game. He finished with 11 points on 3-10 shooting, well below his 19.6 average.
“[There’s] not too many times he’s going to go 3-10 regardless of who’s guarding you, because he’s that talented,” Manning said. “It just worked out for us tonight. I thought we did a really good job of trying to get a hand in his face on his three-point attempts as well.”
The defense matched the energy that the crowd brought – a feat hard for any team to do. With the win, Maryland still has a chance to finish their season with a winning record for the 29th-straight year, but they would have to win their last two regular season games.