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Maryland’s Eric Ayala calm, confident despite season-long shooting slump: ‘He always stays balanced’

Maryland guard Eric Ayala usually carries himself with a sense of calm, rarely flustered or frustrated as chaos ensues around him.

“It’s always been that way. He never gets too high or too low,” Ayala’s mother, Brandi Truitt, said in a telephone interview Monday. “He always stays balanced.”

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It’s that way when the shot clock is running out and the 6-foot-5 sophomore is being asked to make the right play by coach Mark Turgeon. It’s that way after games, too, when Ayala is asked about what just happened on the court.

Which is why last Friday night’s performance at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena seemed so out of character for Ayala.

Replacing fellow sophomore Aaron Wiggins early in the game — Turgeon pulled the 6-foot-6 wing less than two minutes in — Ayala made too nonchalant a dribble handoff on his first possession, nearly causing a turnover.

It foreshadowed one of Ayala’s worst games as a Terp.

By the time Maryland headed for its locker room at halftime, the Terps were already down 14 points. By the time the team bused back to its hotel after a flight home was postponed until the next morning by icy weather, Maryland had endured a 67-49 loss, leaving the Terps 0-3 on the road this season.

Just as Ayala has been a positive factor in many victories in his first two years for the Terps, his sloppy play against Iowa was among the more obvious reasons for what Turgeon called one of the most disappointing performances by any team in his 22 seasons as a Division I coach.

Along with committing a team-high four of Maryland’s 17 turnovers, Ayala missed all six shots he attempted. His season-long struggle from behind the 3-point line continued with three misses, bringing his season percentage to .247 (18-for-73), the lowest among the team’s regulars.

Ayala finished with a season-low two points on a pair of free throws, continuing a streak of seven games in which he has averaged just seven points and missed 38 of 52 shots, including 22 of 28 from 3-point range.

After scoring in double figures in seven of the first 11 games, averaging 11 points, he has been held in single figures in six of the past seven, including five straight going into Wisconsin.

It hasn’t caused Turgeon to lose confidence in Ayala’s ability to shoot, particularly from 3.

“I think every time Eric shoots it, he’s going to make it — if it’s a good shot,” Turgeon said after practice Monday.

Maryland guard Eric Ayala (5) sets up a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball tournament game against Temple Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Maryland guard Eric Ayala (5) sets up a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball tournament game against Temple Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Ayala hopes going back to Wisconsin’s Kohl Center on Tuesday night will help get him out of his recent funk. A year ago, Ayala scored 18 points, hit seven of 11 shots, including four of five from beyond the arc, in a 69-61 loss to the then-No. 24 Badgers.

Largely because of Ayala’s hot start — he hit his first five shots — the Terps led by as many as nine points in the first half. After Maryland watched its lead cut to five by halftime, Ayala barely saw the ball in the second half as Wisconsin took control in what was its third straight home win over the Terps.

Asked if returning to a place where he played well could help shake his prolonged shooting slump, Ayala said Monday, “I would hope so. ... I’m just taking it one day at a time right now.”

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Ayala is low-key and quietly confident in his approach.

“Not try to overwhelm myself with the shots [not falling],” he said. “I know it’s going to fall eventually. I‘m not trying to overthink it. When they start falling, they’ll start falling. As long as we’re winning, and getting better as a team, I’m OK with that.”

Ayala’s attitude doesn’t surprise his mother, who had her only child when she was 18 and gave him the key to the front door of their house when he was just 9.

“Some people take it the wrong way if something is bothering him or he’s upset about something. He’s perfectly fine [outwardly], that’s just his personality,” said Truitt, who works for the Wilmington, Delaware, police department. “It doesn’t mean that something is wrong.”

Turgeon said that he has spoken to Ayala about his recent play, in which he has appeared to force more shots and lose focus. Turgeon said that Ayala had his “best practice of the year” Monday.

It is a claim the coach has often said about other struggling players, as well as his team, throughout his nine seasons at Maryland.

“I have talked to Eric, and told him, ‘Get back to the player he was last year. Running the team, coming to me, what are we going to do coach? Where are we going, what’s next?'” Turgeon said after practice Monday. “Paying attention in timeouts a little better, things like that. It’s in him.”

Ayala was a bit of a revelation as a freshman. After a well-traveled high school career that took him from his hometown of Wilmington to a prep school in Connecticut and eventually to the IMG Academy in Florida for a post-graduate year, Ayala was overshadowed by both Wiggins and Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) coming in.

After an impressive summer, Ayala wound up starting all but the season opener, averaging 8.6 points in 29 minutes a game — third behind Anthony Cowan Jr. and Bruno Fernando — while taking some of the ball-handling responsibilities off Cowan’s shoulders.

The biggest surprise was his 3-point shooting. Known more for his ability to drive and make plays for others while at IMG, Ayala’s 40.6% shooting on 3-pointers was second to Wiggins (41.3%). It even helped Ayala make it onto the scouting reports of both opposing coaches and NBA front office executives.

Asked Monday if he feels different now than he did last season in the sense of trying to do more, Ayala said: “A little bit. … It’s that you want to [do better]. You want to make that shot, you want to make that right pass. I think it’s a little easy for me this time around.”

As he has been since he arrived, Ayala is diplomatic when talking about his role, deflecting any potential controversy about becoming the sixth man after starting as a freshman by focusing more on the goals of the team than any personal ones he is trying to achieve.

“Whatever I’ve got to do, whatever coach asks me to me, I’m here to do,” Ayala said. “Being humble, it comes with the willingness of doing what I have to do, I want to win. That’s what I want to do. I want to win. Whatever I have to do to make sure that happens, I’m going to do.”

Some players say that publicly, but chafe privately.

Truitt said that her son has always had a preternatural maturity about him, largely stemming from the way he was raised in a single-parent home.

“Whatever it takes to help the team win he’s going to do,” Truitt said. “Whatever sacrifices he’s going to make, he’s going to do. That’s where we talk about the maturity of him. He’s so mature enough where he can handle a situation like that.”

PURDUE@NO. 17 MARYLAND

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