College Park — Eric Ayala paced himself down Maryland’s side of the court in the second half of the Terps men’s basketball team’s road game Friday night against No. 20 Illinois. Noticing an advantage in transition against Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayala took the 6-foot-9 forward off the dribble before spinning into the paint.
With his back to the hoop, Ayala launched a shot over his head that spun off the glass before bouncing into the basket. Ayala finally regained his balance and stopped in front of the Maryland bench, which erupted behind him at the sight of the highlight-reel play.
“That’s just normal Eric,” sophomore forward Jalen Smith said Monday. “In practice, Eric’s always doing something flashy and I’ve seen him do that all throughout high school. So just seeing him do it was no surprise to me.”
It might not have shocked Smith, but the acrobatic layup, and Ayala’s showing in Friday night’s 75-66 win over the Fighting Illini, was a reassuring sign for a player who earlier in the week had gone scoreless for the first time in almost a year.
After failing to record a point in the team’s 56-51 victory over Rutgers on Feb. 4, Ayala had 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting. He also added five rebounds and three assists as No. 9 Maryland (19-4, 9-3 Big Ten) gained sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
It’s been an uncharacteristic shooting season for Ayala, who as a freshman made 40.6% of his 3-point attempts. His long-distance shooting as a sophomore has dropped to 23.8% and he is making just 34.7% of his attempts from the field, compared with 43% as a freshman.
Against Rutgers, Ayala played 30 minutes and shot 0-for-6 from the field, including four misses from beyond the arc. After the game, coach Mark Turgeon said Ayala returned to the court to get up additional shots.
As Maryland fell behind by as many as 14 points in Champaign, Ayala’s shooting struggles continued. He missed his first two shots, both 3-point attempts, and didn’t make his first field goal until the 1:08 mark of the first half.
But while the Terps were mounting another double-digit comeback, Ayala’s coaches and teammates implored him to keep shooting.
“Eric didn’t shoot a couple wide-open 3′s in the game against Illinois,” Smith said, “and coach Turgeon told him, ‘If you have a wide-open 3 and you don’t shoot it again, I’m going to take you out.’ That kind of boosted his head, like, ‘The coach is giving me this green light, so now I can use it to the best of my ability.’”
Despite struggling to hit shots this season, Turgeon said Ayala hasn’t allowed it to affect other aspects of his game.
“It’s been a crazy year for Eric,” Turgeon said. “It’s not from the lack of effort. His effort has been great. His coachability has been great. He’s been through a lot. Probably the last four weeks in practice, you’ve seen really great improvement.
“I think his overall game has gotten better, but we all relate things to scoring and making shots. But his overall game has really gotten better the last four or five weeks. He’s really stepped up defensively. His rebounding, assist-to-turnover [ratio] has really been good, so I was just really happy for him to make shots.”
Ayala’s presence as a ball-handler, rebounder and playmaker is appreciated for a Maryland team that looks to extend its one-game lead in the conference Tuesday night against Nebraska. Consistent scoring from Ayala will help take pressure off senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who the Terps have relied on too much at times. With Cowan falling into foul trouble against Illinois, Ayala was one of several players who stepped up.
In the second half of Friday’s game, Ayala shot 3-for-7 from the field, but Turgeon’s message had reached his young guard. Ayala was more aggressive and didn’t show any hesitation to shoot. With Maryland trying to pull away from Illinois late, Ayala launched a 3-point attempt. The shot clanked off the back of the rim, bounced above the cylinder and dropped into the basket.
It was a fortunate bounce, but just the one needed for a shooter who hasn’t seen many lately.
“I was just happy for him, to see a smile on his face,” Turgeon said. “Then he got a lucky roll. He hasn’t caught a break, so for him to catch that was great.”
NEBRASKA@NO. 9 MARYLAND
Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM