It’s only been 10 days since Maryland men’s basketball was tormented by Rutgers guard Ron Harper Jr. The Terps watched Harper use his silky smooth jump shot to knock down 3-pointer after 3-pointer, while their double-digit halftime lead evaporated in one of the most devastating losses thus far.
When the Terps played the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway, New Jersey, Tuesday evening, they were presented with not only an opportunity for revenge but to gain much-needed momentum.
Just like the previous matchup, the Terps jumped out to a double-digit first-half lead, thanks to a strong combination of consistent shooting and disruptive defense. However, with graduate transfer guard Fatts Russell and senior Eric Ayala combining for 45 points and making 10 combined 3-pointers, Maryland was able to maintain its lead and defeat the Scarlet Knights, 68-60, at the Jersey Mike’s Arena.
It’s the first time the Terps and interim coach Danny Manning have won back-to-back conference games this season. Maryland shot 48% from beyond the arc (12-for-25) and 45.3% from the field (24-for-53) while holding Rutgers to 33.3% and 34.4%, respectively.
Russell had a killer instinct, torching the Scarlet Knights with a season-high five 3-pointers as he finished with 23 points and scored the final nine points of the first half. Ayala, on the other hand, took over the second half, scoring 15 of his 22 points, while becoming the fifth player in Maryland history to surpass 200 career 3-pointers.
“This is one of the few games where we’ve had two guys go off like this offensively,” Manning said. “When we get two guys a score like this, we’re a dangerous team.”
Before Russell and Ayala got going, the Terps relied on junior forward Qudus Wahab. As the Scarlet Knights converted their first three shot attempts, Wahab was dominating at the other end, scoring six points while playing with a type of aggressiveness that’s come and gone in his game this season. The Georgetown transfer finished with 10 points and six rebounds, scoring in double figures for the second straight game.
After Ayala made a layup to make it 8-7, Maryland never trailed again thanks in large part to lopsided run early. Junior forward Donta Scott drove towards the middle before kicking the ball to the corner, where junior guard Hakim Hart swished in a 3-pointer, giving the Terps an 11-7 lead.
Scott made a pair of free throws and backed down a defender before passing the ball to freshman forward Julian Reese, who delivered a two-handed slam to give the Terps (11-9, 3-6 Big Ten) an eight-point advantage. Rutgers failed to score over a five-minute stretch.
Ayala continued Maryland’s offensive outburst, knocking down an off-balance 3-pointer then converting a layup off an offensive rebound, adding more fuel to an 18-2 scoring run that gave the Terps a 22-9 lead with 10:09 remaining in the first half. Ayala finished with eight rebounds.
“I think our team is continuing to grow, continuing to develop,” Manning said. “We’ve gotten better since the last time that we played this talented Rutgers team. Just proud of the group’s belief in each other when we step out there on the court.”
Maryland shot 53.8% from the floor in the first half while holding the Scarlet Knights to 32.1%.
After Rutgers guard Geo Baker attempted to instill a spark in his team with a 3-pointer, Russell converted back-to-back 3-pointers in transition, stretching the Terps’ lead to 35-15 with four minutes to go in the half.
“I hit the first one and it felt good,” Russell said. “Ever since, I just kept going.”
But Rutgers (11-8, 5-4 Big Ten) didn’t go away quietly. Baker, who scored 14 points in the first half, knocked down a pair of 3-pointers while Harper, who was limited due to foul trouble, laid down the hammer over Wahab, cutting the Terps lead down to 38-26 at halftime.
Inside the locker room, Manning didn’t sugarcoat. The Terps were in this same position in the last matchup before collapsing, so he emphasized the importance of finishing strong. That’s exactly what Maryland did.
Ayala was in attack mode, scoring eight points in the opening seven minutes of the second half. When asked what led to the hot shooting, Ayala credited to whatever magic that has allowed the Terps to go 5-1 at Rutgers since joining the Big Ten in 2014-15.
“I like Rutgers,” Ayala said with a grin. “I like their gym.”
But after Ayala’s third 3-pointer gave the Terps a 16-point advantage, Rutgers went on a 6-0 run that was engineered by center Cliff Omoruyi to cut the deficit down to 54-44 with 8:46 to go.
However, Maryland’s outside prevented the Scarlet Knights from cutting the lead into single digits. Russell and Ayala traded 3-point shots, while Wahab scored a basket down low to extend the lead 62-47 with five minutes left.
Maryland was up by 13 when Rutgers appeared to be falling apart. The Scarlet Knights committed three turnovers, Geo Barker was held to two points in the second half, while Harper air-balled a 3-point attempt, prolonging his team’s three-minute scoring drought.
The Scarlet Knights cut the lead down to eight, but time wasn’t on their side.
After Maryland’s upset over No. 24 Illinois, who recently beat No. 10 Michigan State, the team appeared to have found some newfound confidence. Even with everything that has happened with the program, the Terps continue to fight, which Russell attributes to the mentality of the team.
“We showed in games where we were down 20 and we fought our way back to a winnable game,” Russell said. “It’s just kind of who we are. We don’t want to be down like that but it just shows that we have that fight and we’re going to keep going no matter what’s going on around us.”
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