WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — As the Maryland men’s basketball team’s Round of 64 game against Connecticut drew closer on Saturday night, junior guard Eric Ayala noticed the team’s hotel had thinned out, as eliminated squads had already begun to pack their belongings and return home.
In the days leading up to the NCAA tournament matchup, Ayala on several occasions referred to the opportunity to play in the postseason as a “blessing,” one appreciated more after months of daily COVID-19 testing, isolation from friends and family, and, of course, a 4-9 start to conference play that had the Terps’ tournament prospects looking bleak.
“We’re not dumb. We all thought this wasn’t going to happen,” coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. “But we stayed the course. We stayed positive. We kept trying to get better. ... For a team that wasn’t supposed to even make the tournament, it’s good for us.”
Turgeon’s comments perhaps provided a bit of insight into how the Terps were able to play so freely in one of their most well-rounded outings this season.
Here are three takeaways from 10th-seeded Maryland’s 63-54 win over seventh-seeded UConn at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.
Maryland made timely plays to avoid the collapses that led to recent losses to Michigan and Penn State.
The Terps faced a pivotal moment when Ayala picked up his second foul and headed to the bench with 4:34 left in the first half. He had supplied Maryland’s offense early, scoring 14 points to give his team a nine-point lead before sitting out the remainder of the half.
With the Terps’ best scorer that night sidelined until the beginning of the second half, they needed some sort of spark from the trio of Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell and Donta Scott to maintain their lead before halftime.
When UConn forward Tyler Polley hit a corner 3-pointer to cut the lead to six with under four minutes left, what could have followed could have been reminiscent of Maryland’s Big Ten tournament game against Michigan in the quarterfinals, in which the Wolverines quickly erased a 12-point first-half deficit to take control of the game at halftime.
But on the other end, Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) stepped into a made 3-pointer that pushed the lead back to nine. Two possessions later, Scott slipped into the lane off a pick-and-roll for a layup that gave Maryland an 11-point leading heading into halftime.
The sequence at the end of the half was crucial, as UConn came out of the 20-minute halftime break looking to be the aggressors with its full-court press. And when the Huskies scored four straight points to cut the Terps’ lead to seven, you could have mistaken the neutral site Mackey Arena for Harry A. Gampel Pavilion at the University of Connecticut with the way the Huskies fans in attendance were cheering on their team.
However, the moment wasn’t too big for Maryland, which scored seven straight points to take its largest lead and seize control of the game. Even as UConn chipped away at the lead, getting within five late as the Terps placed star guard James Bouknight on the free-throw line possession after possession, Maryland had a response to avoid the kind of second-half debacle that ruined Senior Night against Penn State in the regular-season finale.
Offensive rebounds aside, the Terps’ defensive performance was one of their best all season.
The sight of Maryland giving up four offensive rebounds on UConn’s opening possession — after a pair of missed free throws, no less — surely brought memories of its struggles against teams like Michigan and Iowa in the Big Ten. The Terps allowed 18 offensive boards in the first half, and 22 total, blowing away their previous high of 14 allowed to Old Dominion. But setting aside the struggles on the boards in the opening minutes, Maryland’s defense shined on a night when it faced a first-team All-Big East selection and projected NBA lottery pick in Bouknight.
Bouknight, UConn’s leading scorer, recorded 15 points but shot just 6-for-16 from the field. Guard R.J. Cole, the team’s second-leading scorer, recorded nine points on 3-for-12 shooting. While much of Saturday’s matchup was hyped to be a clash between Bouknight and Morsell, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Maryland’s switching defense placed responsibility for Bouknight on every player on the floor at some point and each was up to the task. UConn recorded a season-low in points (54) and field-goal percentage (.320).
Turgeon delivered the most impressive NCAA tournament win of his Maryland tenure.
In his previous four trips to the NCAA tournament at Maryland, Turgeon had compiled four wins, all against double-digit seeds as the Terps advanced as far as the Sweet Sixteen in the 2015-16 season.
This most recent appearance to the postseason was the team’s first as a double-digit seed under Turgeon and Maryland played as if it had nothing to lose after a regular season in which it was expected to take a significant step back because of the departure of stars Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith. The underdog role is one that has suited the Terps all season and Turgeon said as much in his postgame comments.
“We’ve kind of overachieved all of our expectations and continued to do so,” he said when asked if his team was fueled by the overwhelming number of pundits who picked against Maryland. “So that’s fun when you’re doing it. But our guys are locked in.”
Maryland’s late success doesn’t excuse Turgeon for constructing a roster that lacked a ready-made point guard or a natural center. But he has made the most out of a talented, but fundamentally flawed, group in a season like no other.
Turgeon has taken his share of lumps — whether warranted or not — from a fan base that longs for more postseason success. But rallying a team that was perceived to be one of his lesser talented in years to the verge of a Sweet Sixteen appearance is perhaps his most remarkable work in College Park to date.