Stifling second half defense leads No. 21 Maryland men’s basketball to win

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

It isn’t often that NCAA basketball teams win games when they shoot below 40% from the floor. However, that is exactly what the Maryland men’s basketball team did Saturday, using stifling defense, and sizable advantages in free throws and rebounding to beat the Vermont Catamounts. 

Maryland finished the game shooting just 22-60 (37%) from the floor, including 6-27 (22%) from three-point range. However, it made up for its shooting woes by getting to the line. Maryland shot 23 free throws (and made 18), compared to just 11 for Vermont. 

Eric Ayala and Fatts Russell both had 22 points, tying for the team-lead. 

Also helping the cause was Maryland’s significant advantage on the glass, where it pulled down 45 rebounds compared to just 33 for Vermont. In particular, Maryland dominated on the offensive glass, with 13 offensive rebounds. 

But the story of the game was the defensive effort by Maryland in the second half. Vermont shot 50% as a team in the first half, but Maryland held them to just 7-31 from the floor (23%) in the second half. Vermont did not score a field goal in the last 5:07 of regulation, and scored just 21 points in the second frame. 

Turgeon said after the game that in all his years of coaching, the second half-defensive effort by his squad was one of the best he has ever seen. 

“We had to guard the ball better,” said Turgeon on what changed in the second half. He continued, “they have a bunch of good shooters, so we wanted to stay home, and we made them play one on one.”

The biggest challenge to Maryland came from Vermont guard Ben Shungu, who had 20 first half points and finished with a game high 27. Maryland switched a lot defensively throughout the game, and rotated multiple defenders against him, which limited his success in the second half. 

“I think he got tired in the second half,” said Eric Ayala. “We were wearing him down, switching different guys, giving him different defenders.”

The Terps started slow in the first half, appearing to show some fatigue with this being their third game in just five nights. 

However, what started as a sluggish first half, turned into a pretty spicy contest in short order. Midway through the first half, Vermont guard Robin Duncan tried to swipe the ball from Maryland guard Eric Ayala, which resulted in a jump-ball tie up. 

Ayala took a bit of an exception to the move by Duncan, and the two got into a bit of a skirmish right in front of the Vermont bench. The crowd at the Xfinity Center was ignited by the tussle, and let Duncan hear their displeasure with him throughout the game. 

Ayala chose not to say much about the incident after the game, but noted that he thought it inspired his team, and that coach Turgeon inspired him to play hard. 

When asked about the confrontation, Xavier Green said, “we knew it was gonna be a fight … we see the energy that he (Ayala) got and we know that we need to bring it too.”

Later in the game, Ayala and Duncan got into it again, this time resulting in offsetting technical fouls. 

A few minutes after the incident with Ayala, Russell took the ball end to end and finished a layup while getting fouled. Looking at the crowd, Russell gave the “count-it” gesture to the fans right in front of the Vermont bench, much to the delight of the more than 13,000 fans that attended the game. 

The second half started slow for both teams. Maryland started to take control with hustle plays and stops on the defensive end, which became the theme of the day for the Terps. 

Center Qudus Wahab, who has led the team in scoring over the first two games, was very quiet. Vermont sent immediate double teams to him whenever he touched the ball in the low block, which was effective at neutralizing his post-scoring. Maryland struggled to make Vermont pay for the double teams. Wahab finished with six points on four shots. 

Turgeon blamed Wahab’s struggles on himself, and said that the team had to focus on Vermont’s offense with their short preparation time, and did not have time to prepare for the double teams. 

Turgeon also used some new rotations throughout the game, including the first extended minutes for graduate transfer Simon Wright. Turgeon noted that Wright allowed them to play smaller to match Vermont. Wright knocked down a three pointer in the first half, and made some nice hustle plays throughout the game. 

Those hustle plays became a theme in the second half. With a lineup featuring Green and Julian Reese, Maryland slammed the door shut in the last five minutes of the game. Reese drew seven fouls in the game, and contributed to the advantage for Maryland at the stripe. 

While not perfect, Maryland finished the first week of the season 3-0, and is likely to move up in Monday’s national polls. Maryland will play their next game on Wednesday against George Mason.