Coming into Wednesday night’s contest, No. 3 Maryland’s offense had been scoring over 80 points per game. But after 16 minutes of play on Wednesday, the Terps (9-0) could not get anything going and led just 16-13, way off the normal pace.
But in the last four minutes of the half, the Terps offense found life. Maryland made seven of their last eight shots of the half, capped off by a breath-taking putback dunk by Aaron Wiggins, to put Notre Dame (6-2) away for good. Maryland’s undefeated season would continue as the team went on to win 72-51.
“I think we’re a spurtability team. We make shots and if we guard we’re going to have those (runs),” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “I think they had two straight timeouts where they didn’t score.”
The Terps were plagued by another slow start, but it was sophomore Eric Ayala who provided an energy boost. Ayala scored his first bucket of the game on a lay-up to boost Maryland’s to 16-13. The poised guard followed that up with a fastbreak bucket then a three-pointer from NBA range to conclude a personal 7-0 run.
A few possessions later, Ayala leaked out in transition and threw down a massive one-handed dunk that got the Xfinity Center roaring.
“I’m still a little surprised myself. I put a lot of work you know this offseason in my body and it’s starting to pay off,” said Ayala who had a season-high 14 points.
Fans will likely remember the massive dunks from Ayala and Wiggins, but Maryland’s defense was rather stingy on Wednesday, holding the Fighting Irish to 24 points below their season average. The defense was anchored by Wiggins and Darryl Morsell on the perimeter, while Jalen Smith held it down inside, swatting five shots. This was the fifth time this year that “Stix” blocked at least three shots in a game.
“I feel like it’s starting to become our identity. We lock in defensively, you know offense feeds off of that,” Ayala said. “We get out in transition, we make plays. It’s fun when we can just turn it on like that and everybody is so into it on the defensive end.”
Smith arguably had his best all-around game of the season with 15 points, a career-high 16 rebounds, and five rejections. He also flashed his shooting ability with two makes from deep. After an up-and-down Thanksgiving tournament, the Baltimore native played much more relaxed tonight and let the game come to him. This all coming while he was feeling “under the weather”.
“Coach told me to play my hardest tonight. He knew I was under the weather tonight and giving it my all no matter what,” said Smith. “Things just fell my way and blocks just happened.”
Balance was again key for the Terps as they continued to distribute the wealth on offense. Smith led all scorers with 15 points, while Ayala tacked on 14 of his own. Wiggins also finished in double-digits with 13.
While the starters performed exceptionally, it was a subpar outing from Maryland’s bench, which tied a season low with 13 combined points. For the Terps to reach their true potential, they likely need one of the reserves to stand out.
Maryland will try to move to 10-0 on Saturday when the Illinois Fighting Illini come to College Park. Maryland will look to avenge last season’s loss to start conference play. Tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Saturday and can be viewed on ESPN 2.
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