Three takeaways from Maryland men’s basketball’s win over La Salle

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Coming off of back-to-back losses against Clemson and then-No. 19 Rutgers, Maryland (5-2, 0-1 B1G) returned to its winning ways with an 84-71 win over La Salle. The Terps were well balanced offensively, as five different players finished in double figures including three of five starters. Next, Maryland will travel to West Lafayette, Indiana, as it’s set to face off with Purdue on Christmas Day.

Here are my takeaways from Tuesday night’s victory:

Eric Ayala shows off his assertiveness:

Through the first six games of the season, junior guard Eric Ayala was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13.7 points per game and serving as the team’s primary ball handler. Tuesday night against La Salle, Ayala displayed some of the assertiveness and toughness that head coach Mark Turgeon has been searching for with a career-high 23-point performance. 13 of those 23 points came at the free-throw line, an area where Ayala has excelled this season.

Before Tuesday’s contest, Turgeon spoke about how he was looking for the Terps to play with more toughness particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Collectively as a unit, the Terps showed that mentality on defense, but Ayala served as a leading catalyst on the offensive end. 

With Maryland leading 25-18 looking to gain added separation, Ayala’s assertiveness throughout can be encapsulated in one sequence. Senior Darryl Morsell missed a perimeter shot from the wing and Ayala came flying in from the backside to corral a contested rebound in the low post. He then grabbed the rebound and utilized a shot fake to draw a foul, knocking down both at the line.

“I was just kind of reading the defense,” Ayala said. “I just go one day at a time, today I got to the line and it was easy for me to get to the line and make free throws.”

That assertiveness continued into the second half as Ayala continued to attack the basket with reckless abandon. With less than six minutes remaining, Ayala showed off with two of his most impressive plays of the night. First, he dribbled around his defender on the perimeter and manvered inside absorbing contact for a crafty finish. Shortly after, on a missed shot Ayala launched a precise pass from halfcourt to Hakim Hart who threw down the thunderous alley-oop extending Maryland’s lead to 72-59, another example of Ayala’s growing confidence.

Aaron Wiggins plays his most complete game of the season:

Entering the 2020-21 season, junior guard Aaron Wiggins was expected to take a big step from his sophomore to junior season. The first six games, Wiggins showed flashes of optimism, but struggled to generate consistency on the offensive end of the floor. However, Tuesday was a different story as Wiggins scored a season-high 15 points and added nine rebounds on a season-high 16 shot attempts.

“Aaron Wiggins was just aggressive,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “I liked most of his shots.”

For much of the first half, Wiggins struggled to get his shot to fall, missing four of his first five. Despite the early struggles, Wiggins showed flashes of optimism the final three minutes of the first half. First, he anticipated a pass from guard Sherif Kenney and used his length for a steal, which he converted into a breakaway dunk. 

On the Terps’ next offensive possession, Wiggins knocked down a three as he put together five quick points. Although he struggled to score in the first half, Wiggins made an impact on the glass with seven rebounds. Three of those were offensive rebounds, which helped set up second-chance opportunities for the Terps.

Building on his success from the latter stages of the first half, Wiggins seemed more confident in the second half attacking one-on-one matchups and looking for his shot more. On his four second-half baskets, he showed a variety of ways to score. Wiggins took his defender off of the dribble to the basket with his left-hand, but also used his length at 6-foot-6 for turnaround jumpers. That’s an encouraging sign for the Terps moving forward as Wiggins versatility offensively makes Maryland much harder to guard.

“It was just about me being confident and I got a couple of good looks,” Wiggins said.

Hakim Hart proving to be Maryland’s most reliable bench scoring option:

So far through seven games, sophomore guard Hakim Hart has emerged as one of the bright spots for the Terps. After playing minimal action throughout last season, Hart has stepped up this season with his increased minutes. Tuesday against La Salle, Hart scored 13 points putting up double figures for the third time this season.

Eight of Hart’s 13 points came in the second half with three key baskets in the final 12 minutes. With 12:22 remaining, guard Spencer Scott knocked down one of La Salle’s 14 three-point attempts, which cut Maryland’s lead to 52-45. However, on the ensuing possession Hart came down and drilled a three to push Maryland’s lead to double digits once again.

As the second half progressed, Hart continued to convert timely hoops. With Maryland leading 58-47, Hart beat his defender off the dribble and attacked the basket absorbing contact as he finished the crafty scoop layup an example of his growing confidence in this 2020 season. 

A few minutes later, Hart threw down the aforementioned alley-oop jam on the feed from Ayala that energized the Terps bench. As Maryland enters the heart of Big Ten play, Hart becoming a more consistent and reliable scorer will be a great asset for the Terps.