The Terps managed a couple of defensive stops, briefly showing some energy that could have marked the early signs of a quick run. But on this night, Coach Mark Turgeon said, “We didn’t look like us.” And two players pegged to be key scorers certainly didn’t look like themselves, either.
Sophomore guard Eric Ayala missed three shots in just over a minute when Maryland had that short blip of promise. The Hawkeyes responded with a burst of scoring and maintained firm control in a 67-49 rout.
Ayala finished with two points on 0-for-6 shooting, with an assist and four turnovers. Classmate Aaron Wiggins struggled even more. On Maryland’s first possession, Wiggins dribbled out of bounds, the first of his three turnovers. He only played 17 minutes after running into foul trouble. Wiggins missed all four of his field goal attempts and was held scoreless for the first time in his college career.
“We have some guys that are really good players that just need to act like they’re really good players and play like it,” Turgeon said after the game. “And tonight we didn’t.”
The loss in Iowa City magnified some of Maryland’s offensive concerns, particularly from three-point range and for these two sophomores. In all three of their losses, the Terps shot 33 percent or worse. Seton Hall and Iowa held Maryland to under 50 points.
As the Terps (13-3, 3-2 Big Ten) hope to work through the issues, they will have to do so away from home. The matchup against Iowa was the first in a five-game stretch that includes four on the road, with the next test coming Tuesday at Wisconsin (10-6, 3-2) after a quick turnaround. Home teams have won 87 percent of Big Ten games this season.
Maryland’s occasional trouble — on Friday night and at other times — doesn’t fall exclusively on Ayala and Wiggins. Those two have still contributed while reversing their roles from last season. Wiggins has started every game and averaged 10.3 points. Ayala now comes off the bench and has scored 9.4 points per game, the fourth most on the team and just behind Wiggins. Wiggins has reached double figures in 10 of 16 games, tying his career-high total of 15 points three times.
Both played well on Maryland’s freshman-laden team a year ago, helping the Terps reach the second round of the NCAA tournament, and both entered this season poised to take a leap. Wiggins was viewed as a possible breakout star, and perhaps even someone who might consider an early departure for the NBA if he played at a high level.
“It’s a lot harder for these kids,” Turgeon said. “When you’re a freshman, a lot of times you don’t know any better. And then all of a sudden, you know what’s going on.”
Both sophomores have showcased their improved physicality with athletic dunks, including Wiggins’s highlight-reel slam after he followed his missed three-pointer last month against Notre Dame. Even that day, when Wiggins’s feat was named the night’s top play on “SportsCenter,” players couldn’t decide whose dunk was more impressive because Ayala had a nifty one, too.
But then there’s the three-point shooting, the area in which neither player has found his groove. The pair led the team as freshmen. Wiggins shot 41.3 percent, and Ayala, whose shooting acumen came as a pleasant surprise, made 40.6 percent. The offense ran through Bruno Fernando, so Maryland shooters benefited from how opponents double-teamed him and left a player open on the perimeter. Ayala said that helped him find a rhythm.
Nearly three months into their sophomore seasons, Ayala has shot 24.7 percent from three and Wiggins has made 28.8 percent. Both have taken more than 70 shots from behind the arc, and the two have slightly underperformed even compared with their modest season averages in January. In the past couple of games, Turgeon said, Wiggins has let his shooting trouble affect the rest of his game, which hadn’t been the case earlier.
“It’s been a concern of mine all year,” Turgeon said of Wiggins’s struggles. “He’s such a good player, and he’s such a good shooter. I started saying around Christmas, after we lost [at] Seton Hall, it’s my job to give guys confidence, and I’m trying with him. He’s just got to believe in himself out there. I know we believe in him.”
As a team, the Terps have shot 30.6 percent from three-point range, a decline from last season’s 34.9 percent. Maryland’s 41.4 percent shooting from the field is worst in the Big Ten. The team’s three-point shooting ranks 12th of 14 schools. The Terps have instead relied on their consistently strong defense to win games, including in their marquee victory last week over then-No. 11 Ohio State.
Ayala had what Turgeon called his best practice of the season Sunday. Ayala said the Iowa game, along with the other two losses, gave him a chance to “reevaluate” himself, and he added that he looked forward to showing he is a different player.
Both forward Jalen Smith and guard Darryl Morsell have made threes when needed. Freshman Donta Smith has developed into a dependable starter. Senior Anthony Cowan Jr., the team’s leading scorer, can deliver in critical moments. So Maryland doesn’t necessarily need Wiggins and Ayala to be exceptional. They just need to play to their ability, the way they did last year. The two are roommates, and they motivate each other. Ayala said they have talked about how they are going through this together, how they are going to get out of their funk.
“We’ve been able to win 13 games with us not shooting the ball as well as we usually do,” Ayala said. “So I imagine when we do shoot it …”
Ayala trailed off, but what he was envisioning was obvious. If Wiggins and Ayala can hit shots, and as long as others maintain their form, Maryland increases its chances of winning important games, the ones down the stretch. Wiggins and Ayala understand their roles and their importance. So when he was asked to finish his thought about what will happen when the two break out of their rut, Ayala said, “Once we start clicking, it’s going to be fun.”
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