Eric Ayala didn’t even hesitate. He didn’t size up his opponent or give the defense time to prepare for his three point dagger. He simply rebounded the ball, ran the fast break, pulled up and drained a shot well over 30 feet away from the rim — as if he hadn’t missed his first five shots of the night.
It was the shot that started Ayala’s 19 point performance and exemplified Maryland’s impressive second half outburst — poised play that mirrored the first ten minutes of the contest.
In their first home game of 2022, the Terps’ seemingly routine slow start managed to doom Maryland men’s basketball in a way it hadn’t been all season.
Then, Maryland woke up. Down 21 points and without any meaningful momentum, the Terps created some, erupting for 15 unanswered points with just under 10 minutes left in the opening half, and started working toward a more respectable scoreline.
As impressive as it was, being potentially one of the largest comebacks in Maryland history, it was not enough to truly swing the game all the way in Maryland’s favor. The Terps were tireless offensively but could not edge the Badgers in the end. As a result, Maryland (8-7, 0-4 B1G) lost its fourth straight Big Ten matchup to No. 23 Wisconsin (13-2, 4-1 B1G), 70-69.
“I love the fight of our team,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “I don’t like it when we give up such an early lead like we did tonight. But we’ve shown that we have the wherewithal to continue to find a way to claw, fight and scratch and get back into the ballgame.”
After 12 minutes of lifeless basketball that featured turnovers, scrambled defense and just four made field goals, the Terps began looking for shots with verve and attacking the basket at will. And the sub-30% field goal percentage began increasing as the aggressive shot taking was complemented by impressive shot making.
In the 15-0 run, Maryland put the lethargic play behind it. Hakim Hart kneaded his way through the lane to start the run. Later, Donta Scott drained an and-one three point jumper and Xavier Green, a primary defender who’s averaged under two points per game, hit a fast-break three and pull-up jumper to help cut the deficit to six. Green ended with a season high 10 points, missing just one shot.
“[It was] my teammates for real,” Green said. ” … building confidence in me, getting those passes to me and me being ready to shoot and it just all just translated.”
But the Terps needed more. The commanding run granted them life, a, 33-26, deficit. But they needed a bonafide scorer, just as Wisconsin had in player of the year candidate Johnny Davis, who ended the half with a game-high 11 points.
Enter Eric Ayala. The Terps’ quiet leader, who went scoreless in the first half, livened up and took over to start the second half.
“I thought he just made his mind up to go play,” Manning said. “I think a lot of it, he thought like: ‘I gotta go make some plays from a team. I gotta make some shots for my team.’ And he certainly did that in a second half.”
A pair of back-to-back threes got the crowd loud and gave Maryland its first lead of the night. A three soon after by Ayala, spiked his confidence and began vitalizing Maryland’s upset hopes. The next field goal, an and-one bucket by Ayala that was followed by a hook shot by Julian Reese, gave the Terps their largest lead, 44-41.
But even as the offense was chugging the defense still had to answer to an elite Wisconsin offense.
As Davis worked his way to a rather inefficient 19 point finish, forward Tyler Wahl took advantage of a mismatch in Donta Scott and manufactured a 12 point second half that kept the Badgers afloat and helped add to his 21 point outing. That, and the slow start that Maryland suffered in the first half, was ultimately the difference.
The Terps stayed close and matched the Badgers for nearly every bucket down the stretch, but failed to sneak past Wisconsin, even in the late-game free throw effort, where Maryland ended just an Ayala half court heave short of its first Wisconsin victory.
“We right there,” Ayala said. “If anybody notices that, we right there.”