CHAMPAIGN, IL- After an 0-6 shooting performance against Rutgers. Eric Ayala did not sit and pout. Rather, the sophomore stayed after the game to get extra shots up at the Xfinity Center.
That extra work paid off on Friday night. In arguably the biggest game of the year, Ayala drained two key three-pointers. After the second make, the typically calm Ayala let out a scream of joy. His highest scoring outing since the Penn State game in mid December helped propel No. 9 Maryland to a 75-66 victory over No. 20 Illinois.
“It wasn’t more so the shot, it just was a relief. I wanted to go do it for my team. My teammates needed me and I was just happy I could come through for them,” Ayala said about his emotion. “All the excitement, everything, it’s just for my team.”
The first half was almost a microcosm of the last match between these teams. The Illini got off to a blazing start, making four of their first six shots from three. When Damonte Williams made his second three of the game, the Illini led 17-7. Williams entered the game as a 13 percent three-point shooter and hadn’t made a field goal since December.
After two technicals, one on head coach Mark Turgeon and one on the bench, the Terps trailed 28-15. But the technicals seemed to fire up Turgeon’s squad, who started to chip away. Anthony Cowan kept them in range early on with 11 of the first 15 points. But the role players suddenly started making baskets. Freshman Donta Scott scored five straight to get the lead back to single digits. When Darryl Morsell dunked on a baseline drive, the lead was to five. Sophomore Aaron Wiggins drained consecutive threes to end the half and the Terps were down 42-40.
“He (Turgeon) said he’s always going to fight for us regardless of what it is. He’s gonna talk to the refs and he’s gonna make sure he has our back. So we always come together as teammates when we see that we tell each other, ‘we gotta make sure we fight for him just as much as he fights for us,’” said Wiggins. “It definitely lights the fire in us a little bit, to see how passionate they are.”
In addition to Maryland’s offense, the defensive adjustments also played a factor in the resurgence. The Terps switched to a 3-2 zone and the Illini seemed puzzled. With Trent Frazier picking up his second foul of the first half with over 12 minutes remaining, the Illini didn’t have the shooting to break the zone. When Aaron Wiggins drained consecutive threes to end the half, including one at the buzzer, the lead was cut to two and Turgeon couldn’t help but fist pump.
The struggles against the zone for the Illini did not fade in the second half. Rather, they were heightened as Brad Underwood’s team started 0-12. Maryland tied the game on a Cowan to Jalen Smith lob and then Smith slammed home a transition dunk to give the Terps their first lead, 46-44. The Terps lead would extend to nine on a 13-0 run, but Illinois was not done fighting. An Alan Griffin three cut the lead back to one with 8:46 left to play.
“They had some guys on the bench with foul trouble that are good shooters for them. So we were able to zone,” said Turgeon on the decision to switch from man to zone. “We’ve been practicing it before every game we just haven’t played it…today we were better in it and rebounded pretty good in it for us.”
One point is as close as the lead would get though. Ayala drained that crucial three and the Terps pulled away. Maryland was balanced on offense with five players scoring in double figures. Cowan led all scorers with 20, including a signature pull-up three with 2:37 left.
Maryland has now come back from double-digits five times this season, but only once on the road prior to Friday and that was against inferior competition. Three weeks ago this team crumbled down the stretch in Madison and was blown out in Iowa City. But since then, they have rallied to win six straight including three straight on the road. They are now in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten
“We (are) just confident. Rolling. Everything is clicking right now. I can’t explain it,” Ayala said. “We go out there and it’s just natural. We’re kinda getting a natural feel.”
Maryland’s season sweep of Illinois puts them at 9-3 in the league. With eight games to go, the Big Ten regular season title is in their grasp.
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