COLLEGE PARK — At age 9, Eric Ayala learned to be accountable. That’s when his mother, Brandy Truitt, gave her only child a key to their small house in a gritty neighborhood on the west side of Wilmington, Del. Every day after school, located just down the street from his home, he’d walk back and look after himself.
The rules were simple: No one could come in, and Ayala couldn’t go out, until his mother returned from her job at the city’s police department.
“I had to grow up faster” than other kids, Ayala recalled recently. “It was a lot of responsibility. She’s always kind of instilled in me [the motivation] to do the right thing, make the right decisions.”
More than a decade later, Ayala is doing just that for the No. 21 Maryland men’s basketball team.
Entering Friday night’s matchup at No. 24 Wisconsin, Ayala has started every game of his freshman season for the Terps, sharing point guard duties with junior and two-year incumbent Anthony Cowan Jr. Ayala is third on the team in minutes played (28.5 per game), second in assists (2.5 per game) and leads the Terps with a .453 3-point shooting percentage, fourth best in the Big Ten. The message his mother first conveyed has found new life in College Park.
“It’s kind of translated through my whole life,” said Ayala, who’s also averaging 8.5 points per game. “Coach [Mark] Turgeon always tells me, ‘Make the right decisions,’ on and off the court. I feel that’s where, I think, the trust comes from him. He trusts me to make the right decisions, whether to pass, shoot or drive.”
Said Turgeon: “Eric’s been an old soul since I started recruiting him. He’s gotten a lot better [as a player], but his personality, who he is ... he’s always been very mature.”
Ayala feels he owes his maturity to his mother, who was a senior in high school when he was born. He owes it to Turgeon, who recruited him for three years. And he owes it to himself and the game he grew up playing, starting with a toy hoop hanging on his bedroom door.
“That’s where I fell in love with basketball,” he said. “I wanted to stay out of trouble. In Wilmington, there’s nothing but trouble outside. … I knew that wasn’t what I wanted for myself or my mom wanted for me.
“A lot of the kids I grew up with are either dead or in jail, or just in the streets. I always knew I had a different path from them. … When I go home now, it’s still the same people doing the same things. Basketball has been a lifesaver for me.”
When he was in elementary school, Ayala’s mother changed his enrollment to another middle school, one where the students were less troublesome. Ayala knew that to survive, and for his game to grow, he had to leave Wilmington.
The two years he spent as a junior and senior at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut, where he played with Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Hamidou Diallo and several other Division I-level prospects, were “life-changing for me, as far as basketball goes,” Ayala said.
“Lots of guys come into their freshman year of college trying to figure it out. That was like a freshman year of college for me. It was the first time being around a lot of good players, where I’m not the best player in the room.”
Early on, he called home for weeks, begging his mother to take him back to Wilmington.
The Maryland men's basketball team dropped eight spots to No. 21 in this week's AP Top 25 poll released Monday after losing consecutive games at No. 6 Michigan State and to unranked Illinois at Madison Square Garden Saturday.
“She just stopped answering my phone calls, and that changed my whole life,” he said. “Whenever I face adversity, I know I’ve to get through it instead of run away from it. I’ve had a couple of slumps this year, but it never got to me. You just got to get through it.”
Truitt, who has worked as a police dispatcher and now works in records, said she often cried after getting off the phone with Ayala in his early days in Connecticut. But she knew that for her son to have a chance at a better life, he had to stay put in Putnam, a bucolic town in the state’s northeast corner.
Truitt, who has had full custody of her son since he was 1, knew Ayala’s maturity would carry him through. It was a trait she had already passed down.
“I bought my house when I was 23, and he had to be the man of the house,” she said. “It was just the two of us. He learned early how to take out the trash. He did his laundry and stuff like that. … Eric probably had his first debit card when he was 14 or 15 and knew he had to be good with money.”
Teammates have joked about the 20-year-old Ayala being the team’s “old man”; he arrived on campus with a full-grown beard. But he has acted and looked older since birth.
“He looked like he was 3 months old when I had him,” Truitt said.
The postgraduate year Ayala spent at IMG Academy in 2017-2018 eased his transition to the Big Ten, perhaps college basketball’s toughest conference this season. Already a four-star recruit, he put on a few pounds of muscle and started against a rigorous national schedule as a full-time point guard.
“It helped him a lot,” said Fernando, another IMG Academy product. “I think IMG is a really good place that helps you grow not only on the court but off the court, which shows with the way he carries himself around.”
Shortly after he arrived at Maryland with four other freshmen in early June — Ricky Lindo Jr. didn’t sign until August — word started to leak out: Ayala was the revelation of the summer. Before the team’s summer tour in Italy, Turgeon acknowledged that Ayala’s play had been the biggest surprise.
“His game has really evolved, especially in the last year and a half,” Turgeon said. “He’s a much better offensive player. He’s always been a good passer and a good finisher, things like that, but he’s gotten a lot better.”
Ayala’s outside shooting worried Turgeon initially, given the Terps’ plans to play inside-out this season. But after missing five straight 3-pointers over the team’s first three games, Ayala started to heat up, hitting 12 of the next 19, including five of six in a 37-point rout of Marshall on Nov. 23.
Playing its first true home game in over two weeks, No. 21 Maryland got a combined 46 points and 19 rebounds from Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith to beat Northwestern, 70-52, to end its first losing streak of the season.
“I work out most days before practice, and he’s out here every day,” Turgeon said. “He went down to prep school and he worked and worked and worked, and got better. And he continues to work. And it’s kind carried over here. Does it surprise me? Somewhat, but not by how hard he works.”
Said Ayala: “At this level, you need to be a threat at all levels of the game — inside, outside. … That was something, from Day One when I got here, I was consistently working on, and now it’s paying off.”
Not that Ayala’s freshman season has been without its struggles. In losses at No. 6 Michigan State and to Illinois at Madison Square Garden last week, Ayala shot a combined 2-for-9 from the field. Playing through a sore hip injured the week before in a road win at Ohio State, he scored five points against the Spartans and went scoreless against the Fighting Illini. He committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers in New York.
“At the end of the day, I’m human,” he said Monday. “It happens to the best of them. I watched the game, I watched the film, I went into the gym and worked on my mistakes.
“Obviously, I didn’t play up to par [against Illinois]. I accept that. I know I have to play better. Winning takes away a lot of that. Whatever I have to do to help my team win, that’s what I have to do.”
The winning came Tuesday, with a 70-52 victory over Northwestern at Xfinity Center. After missing all four first-half shots, Ayala hit a tough layup in traffic and a 3-pointer from the left wing, finishing with eight points, four assists and only one turnover in 32 minutes.
“He looked like Eric again tonight,” Turgeon said.