The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eric Ayala bounced back from a rough game. Now he needs his teammates to join him.

Maryland’s Eric Ayala had a solid game against Minnesota but played below expectations against Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
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When the Maryland men’s basketball team faced Wisconsin late last month, Eric Ayala struggled all evening. He is the Terrapins’ leading scorer and plays about 35 minutes in each Big Ten game. That night in College Park, Ayala scored four points and didn’t defend well, either. Ayala was just a few days removed from a solid 21-point effort at Minnesota, where he led the Terps to another road win against a ranked team. But his next game against the Badgers ended with a season-low output and a loss.

“We’ve just got to have more guys play better,” Coach Mark Turgeon said afterward, before referencing Ayala’s stat line. “Can’t have guys go 1 for 10 coming off a game where they make shots.”

For Ayala, that game was an anomaly. If it had turned into a prolonged rut, the Terps would have suffered. This Maryland team has shown flashes of potential, but with holes in the roster that opponents can exploit, the Terps need their best players to perform well to have a chance to win. Ayala’s trouble that night didn’t prompt much concern — “he’s been too good for us for almost three years now,” Turgeon said — and Ayala looked ahead.

“It’s one of those games,” Ayala said before the Terps faced then-No. 24 Purdue last week. “I can’t even overthink it. I haven’t really thought much about the game.”

His bounce-back came with force: Ayala scored 16 points in the win over the Boilermakers, including the game-winning free throws with three seconds to go. When Maryland needed to score on its final possession, Ayala missed a layup but then grabbed his own rebound and drew the foul. Earlier in the game, he combined with fellow junior guard Aaron Wiggins to generate a burst of three-pointers in quick succession. The trouble from a few nights before evaporated, and Ayala had returned to himself — the player who averages 14.4 points and has dipped into single figures only three times this season.

In the Terrapins’ dreadful performance Friday at Penn State, Ayala was the lone bright spot. He tied his career high with 23 points. Ayala made all nine of his free throw attempts, and he finished 6 for 11 from the field. As a team, however, the Terps played poorly, with 16 turnovers and subpar offense leading to a 55-50 loss.

With four weeks left in the regular season, each game carries significant weight for the Terps, who are clinging to NCAA tournament hopes. Maryland (10-9, 4-8 Big Ten) has defeated four ranked teams, including three on the road, but the Terps need to string together more conference wins for a chance to be included in the NCAA tournament field. Their schedule helps; Monday’s home game against No. 7 Ohio State (15-4, 9-4) is the last time the Terps face a ranked team. But the trouble at Penn State offered a glimpse into the issues Maryland needs to resolve.

Beyond Ayala, Maryland’s offense sputtered in State College. Wiggins should be one of the team’s top performers most nights, and he often shows that ability. In the Purdue win, Wiggins led the Terps with 18 points. But he has been somewhat inconsistent this season. Against Penn State, Wiggins scored just two points on 1-for-11 shooting. Before that game, Turgeon said he needs Wiggins to be efficient offensively and Ayala to be consistent on both ends of the floor.

“When those guys shoot it well,” Turgeon said, “obviously it rubs off on other guys and it makes things easier for us.”

In games in which Ayala and Wiggins have combined to score more than 28 points, Maryland is 3-1 against major-conference opponents. When those two players finish under that benchmark, Maryland is 0-8. (Ayala didn’t play at Illinois because of a groin injury. Wiggins scored 12 points, and the Terps defeated the Illini, who were ranked 12th at the time.) Wiggins has developed into a proficient passer and rebounder, but now he must respond to a season-low scoring output the same way Ayala did last week.

After the 2019-20 season, the Terrapins lost their top two scorers, guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and forward Jalen Smith. Maryland has struggled to replace that offensive production. In addition to Ayala and Wiggins, sophomore forward Donta Scott (12.5 points per game) and senior guard Darryl Morsell (8.3 points) contribute to the scoring effort. But this Maryland team can hardly afford any one of those players having an off night.

“If we don't play almost as well as we can play, we're not going to win,” Turgeon said. “... Last year, we won some games we didn't play well. But this isn't last year. This is this year's team, and the league is even better than it was last year.”

Ayala has improved as his Maryland career has progressed. He plays with more physicality and can drive into the paint to score. This season, he said he has focused on not settling for three-pointers as often, and so far, that has worked. About 52 percent of his field goal attempts are threes, compared with 60 percent last season. Meanwhile, he is taking layups 33 percent of the time, compared with 25 percent last season. He is shooting better from all areas, too. Ayala is 34.1 percent from three-point range (27.4 percent last season). His success rate on midrange jumpers has improved slightly (30.4 percent, up from 27.3 percent last season). On layups, he is shooting 69.6 percent (58.3 percent last season).

After Ayala’s short-lived struggles, his return to form has helped Maryland. He was integral to the Terps’ win against Purdue. After the Penn State game, Turgeon said Ayala “really was the only guy we felt like could make some shots, so we were trying to play through him.” In doing so, Ayala reached his career high. But that loss was a reminder of this team’s reality: Maryland cannot rely on the performance of a single player.