COLLEGE PARK — It’s only three games into the 2021-22 season and the top men’s basketball teams in the Big Ten have been on the wrong end of upsets. No. 20 Maryland was next in line.
The Terps made a valiant comeback attempt in the final minute Wednesday night against George Mason as senior Eric Ayala made back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 67-66 with 57 seconds remaining, but Davonte Gaines made a clutch basket late in the shot clock and the Patriots hit two free throws to beat Maryland for the first time in 10 tries, 71-66, at the Xfinity Center.
Ayala scored the final nine points for Maryland (3-1), which joined No. 4 Michigan, which lost to Seton Hall, and No. 10 Illinois, which fell to a Darryl Morsell-led Marquette team, as ranked Big Ten teams to lose this week.
“[George Mason] is playing with incredible confidence right now and we are not,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We think we are supposed to beat everybody and it’s not that way. [We] take everybody’s best shot and we don’t know how to handle it yet. So as soon as we figure out how to handle it, we will be a better team.”
Turgeon knew his team wasn’t in the right mindset heading into Wednesday’s game. During practice Tuesday, he said the Terps looked like they had the day off, and the loss to George Mason should serve as a teaching point.
“We needed it as a team to get that punch in the mouth,” said Ayala, who finished with 17 points while knocking down five 3-pointers on 12 attempts. “We had three good games where we competed and kind of felt like we were more talented than teams. Tonight, we approached the game the same way and that came back to bite us. We are back in the hunt and excited to get ready for practice. It’s like a fresh start.”
After shooting 4-for-16 in the past two games, junior forward Donta Scott scored a team-high 18 points and shot 7-for-12 from the field while collecting 10 rebounds.
Freshman Julian Reese (St. Frances) added 12 points and made all four of his shots, but none of it was enough as George Mason’s D’Shawn Schwartz scored 24 points and made six 3-pointers to pair with nine rebounds to lead the unbeaten Patriots (4-0) to the upset.
George Mason’s De’Von Cooper added 16 points, five assists and two steals and Gaines, a Tennessee transfer, had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, including five off the offensive glass.
Over the past two games, Maryland had struggled in the first half. The Terps shot under 40% in the first half against George Washington and Vermont, leaving Turgeon searching for answers.
During the opening minutes Wednesday, there was a sense they were going to solve their first-half woes. Ayala and Scott made back-to-back 3-pointers and the Terps used a 7-0 run to take a 12-3 lead.
But things changed in a hurry. George Mason locked down on defense and held Maryland scoreless for more than three minutes as it went on a 10-0 run to take a 22-18 lead with 8:07 remaining in the first half.
The Patriots’ interior defense was also strong, and they outrebounded the Terps 36-30. They constantly double-teamed Maryland junior forward Qudus Wahab, making him uncomfortable in the paint, and the Georgetown transfer finished with eight points and five rebounds in a season-low 16 minutes.
“It’s a combination of great double-teams and the game was moving really fast for him,” Turgeon said of Wahab. “Our guys [were] not getting in the right spots to help him. He was dribbling when the double-team was coming.”
While George Mason was giving the Terps fits, Scott remained in a zone. He scored 13 points in the first half and was a marksman for the 3-point line, shooting 3-for-3 from deep.
Graduate transfer guard Fatts Russell, on the other hand, couldn’t get anything going. After scoring 22 points against Vermont, Russell made just one of his seven shot attempts and was held to two points and six assists.
The Terps’ free-throw shooting was lackluster as they missed all four first-half attempts. To make matters worse, they committed seven turnovers in the opening 20 minutes, which was attributed to sloppy play with the ball and George Mason’s pesky defense.
“They were clogging the lanes,” Ayala said. “They were making us play on the perimeter. We have great big guys, so a lot of teams are going to make us play the perimeter as much as we can.”
With the Terps trailing 25-21, Scott tried to ignite some energy by hitting a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one. During Maryland’s next possession, Reese showcased his ability from the perimeter, as he hit a 3 to give the Terps a 27-25 lead.
After George Mason forward Josh Oduro’s jumper tied the game at 27, Reese hit a midrange shot to regain the lead. Cooper, however, scored five consecutive points to give the Patriots a 32-31 lead at the half.
The Terps, who shot 52% from the field in the first half, fell flat in the second. Schwartz lit up the Terps, scoring seven points during the Patriots’ 9-0 run that extended their lead to 10 with 13:04 remaining.
With less than 11 minutes to go, the Terps tried to gain momentum. Scott grabbed an offensive rebound and converted a layup. Sophomore guard Ian Martinez hit a jumper before graduate transfer Xavier Green converted a reverse layup in transition to cut the deficit to 51-46.
Schwartz, however, had an answer. He nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key, giving the Patriots an eight-point advantage. A few possessions later, George Mason forward Blake Jones hit another 3 from the corner to extend the lead to 59-50 with 7:03 remaining. Overall, George Mason made 50% of their 3-point attempts (12-for-24) while Maryland made 32% (9-for-28).
The combination of Scott and Reese kept Maryland in the game. Scott scored off an offensive rebound while Reese made three consecutive free throws to cut the Patriots’ lead to 59-56.
As George Mason held the Terps scoreless for three minutes, Schwartz hit his sixth 3-pointer of the evening to make it 64-56.
“We gave them too many easy ones,” Turgeon said. “Whether it was in transition or layups, you can’t do that. We made a lot of mistakes in a stretch where we were supposed to be doing something defensively.”
Maryland tried to make one last push at a comeback. Ayala hit a 3-pointer before Martinez made a free throw to cut the lead to five. Ayala continued to have the hot hand, as he hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 67-66 with 57 seconds left.
Oduro’s layup late in the shot clock with 27 seconds left gave the Patriots a three-point lead, and Ayala put up a contested 3 that hit the front of the rim. Two made free throws by Gaines with 14 seconds left iced the game.
“We got to play better than that,” Ayala said. “We are too talented of a team to not play to our full capabilities.”
Ayala has been through the ups and downs before and knows there is a long season ahead. With another quick turnaround coming — Hofstra comes to College Park on Friday — he emphasized they can’t dwell on the loss or embrace the praise they received before the season.
“A loss like tonight shows any team can win,” Ayala said. “We have to get ready for Big Ten play. Those games are going to get tougher then. In my past years, we blew teams out early on. I’m glad we are having this experience.”
HOFSTRA@NO. 20 MARYLAND
Friday, 6:30 p.m.
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