Fans likely watched the final stretch of the Maryland men’s basketball team’s game against Northwestern on Wednesday night in disbelief.
After the Terps allowed six points in four seconds to allow the game to go to overtime and graduate transfer guard Fatts Russell’s potential game-winning half-court shot circled the rim and fell out to force a second overtime, Maryland took advantage of an exhausted Wildcats team to pull away for a 94-87 win at the Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois.
It’s the Terps’ first Big Ten Conference victory of the season after losing their first four and their first double-overtime victory since beating Michigan State, 68-66, in East Lansing, Michigan, in the school’s first game in the Big Ten on Dec. 30, 2014.
“All of our other games were kind of like this, but we just fell short,” Russell said. “Tonight, we fought all the way to the end so hopefully we [can] find our niche and keep going.”
Even though senior guard Eric Ayala had career highs with 26 points and 11 rebounds for his first double-double, Russell carried the Terps down the stretch. He hit a game-tying layup in overtime, scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half and overtime and added seven assists.
Maryland (9-7, 1-4 Big Ten) shouldn’t have been in a position to rely on Russell in the extra sessions in the first place. The Terps had a 96.9% chance to win, according to ESPN, after junior guard Hakim Hart’s layup extended their lead to six points with 30 seconds remaining and Maryland forced a Northwestern turnover with 19 seconds to go.
After Maryland junior forward Donta Scott, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds, traveled and turned it over a second later, Northwestern forward Pete Nance nailed a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 72-69. Scott was then called for a flagrant foul with 13.1 seconds left, allowing Northwestern’s Robbie Beran to make a pair of free throws to cut the deficit to one.
Scott fouled out of the game after hacking Nance, who was going up for the go-ahead layup. Nance went 1-for-2 from the free-throw line, tying the game at 72 with 11 seconds left. Ayala’s potential game-winning 3-pointer clanked off the rim, sending the game into overtime.
“I don’t even want to talk about it,” Ayala said. “It was crazy.”
The Wildcats were up by as many as four points in overtime when Russell, who was playing with four fouls, helped stage a comeback. With 31 seconds left and the Terps trailing by three, Russell was fouled while converting a layup and hit a free throw to even the score, eventually sending the game into double overtime.
Maryland made its first three shots in the final five-minute period. Xavier Green started with a dunk, Hart answered a Northwestern basket with a jumper and Russell made a shot to make it 89-85. Russell added four more free throws down the stretch.
“He was getting those fouls, and I’m just like, ‘Bro, we need you out here,’” Ayala said. “Fatts was big time. He did his thing tonight.”
There was poor offense displayed by both teams early in the first half. Maryland couldn’t find the net early in the first half, shooting 3-for-10 from the field. After Northwestern took a 10-7 lead, the Wildcats missed six consecutive shots.
Hart cut the deficit to 12-11 after he drove to the basket for a layup with 10:20 remaining. However, the Wildcats scored five unanswered points to take a 17-11 advantage.
As the Terps struggled offensively, Ayala ignited a much-needed spark. With Maryland trailing 19-14, he was fouled while hitting a 3-pointer from the corner. He gave the Terps a 21-19 lead with a three-point play after he backed down a defender and spun towards the basket for a layup with 5:25 remaining.
Ayala continued to have the hot hand, knocking down his second 3-pointer of the first half to give the Terps a 27-26 advantage with 2:28 remaining.
“Eric is one of the older players on our team,” interim coach Danny Manning said. “He’s made some shots for us recently, shooting the ball very well from three.”
Hart also helped carry the Maryland offense, scoring 10 points in the first half, including a layup with 43 seconds remaining to give his team a 30-28 lead. Ayala and Hart had 20 of Maryland’s 30 first-half points.
Maryland took its largest lead of the game early in the second half when Russell buried a 3-pointer to break a tie at 32. The Wildcats scored four consecutive points to regain the lead but Scott buried a shot from outside to put Maryland up 38-36.
Hart, who has scored in double figures in the last nine games, showcased his strength and offensive skill set as he powered to the rim for a basket and foul, giving Maryland a four-point lead in the midst of a 6-0 run.
Freshman Julian Reese (St. Frances) had a rough night and finished with two points before fouling out. Reese made a costly play when he turned the ball over then fouled Northwestern’s forward Elyjah Williams, who scored to tie the game at 46.
The Terps didn’t get much production for junior forward Qudus Wahab, who had four points and five rebounds. Wahab, a Georgetown transfer, has scored in single-digits in the past three games.
Ayala, however, remained Maryland’s most consistent offensive presence. He buried back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Terps a 56-51 lead midway in the game with 7:49 left in regulation.
“Our two guards really did a great job of facilitating, rebounding the basketball [and] scoring the basketball,” Manning said of Ayala and Russell. “We’re very thankful to have them especially in situations like this on the road.”
With Maryland clinging to a one-point lead, Ayala remained determined to end his team’s three-game losing streak. He buried a deep 3-pointer before attacking the rim for a layup, giving the Terps a 66-62 lead with 3:46 remaining. The lead ballooned to six in the final minute before Maryland collapsed late in regulation.
Since taking over the team after coach Mike Turgeon left the program in early December, Manning’s task has been keeping this group together. Even after tough losses to Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, the Terps have felt closer as a team.
When Scott made those mistakes late in the second half, nearly costing the Terps the game, Manning once again had to make sure his team didn’t lose sight of the main goal.
“Good, bad or indifferent, whatever happens, we move on to the next play,” Manning said. “I thought our guys had a terrific mindset of understanding that throughout the whole ballgame.”
Ayala wasn’t afraid to admit he was tired after the game. But he couldn’t help but feel a huge weight lifted off the team’s shoulders after securing a conference win despite all the madness.
“I just was trying to tell the team, this is where we got to take the next step,” Ayala said. “I definitely think we did that and we’re heading towards the right direction.”
Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 105.7 FM