COLLEGE PARK — Another nonconference opponent, another too-close-for-comfort victory for the No. 21 Maryland men’s basketball team.
Much as they did in Thursday night’s 71-64 win against George Washington, the Terps encountered offensive troubles in the first half before rallying late in the second half for a 68-57 win over visiting Vermont on Saturday afternoon before an announced 13,424 at the Xfinity Center.
Graduate student point guard Fatts Russell and senior shooting guard Eric Ayala scored 22 points each to pace Maryland, which improved to 3-0 for the eighth consecutive year. But it was far from simple or easy.
“Our guys don’t know how hard it is to win and how hard you have to play,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “We learned that today, and we got better as the game went on.”
Then again, Ayala, who also had two assists and two rebounds, seemed to relish the potential upset bids posed by Colonials and Catamounts.
“It’s good for us to get challenged early,” he said. “We’re such a good team. We’re kind of facing adversity early so that will make Big Ten play a bit easier. I’m just excited to get our rhythm early and find our grooves as a team.”
Borrowing from Thursday’s victory, the Terps opened the second half by overcoming a small halftime deficit. Trailing 36-32, they watched senior small forward Isaiah Powell nail a 3-pointer to extend Vermont’s advantage to seven before scoring nine unanswered points to assume a 41-39 lead.
Maryland used a 7-0 spurt, but could not pull away from the Catamounts, who closed within three on a hook shot by senior forward Ryan Davis with 5:07 left in the second half and again on a pair of free throws by Davis with 4:28 remaining. But the Terps scored 10 consecutive points, and Vermont went the final 5:07 without making a shot from the field.
Maryland’s comeback was aided by a renewed defensive effort on the Catamounts’ Ben Shungu and Powell. Shungu, a graduate student shooting guard, amassed 20 points, three rebounds and two steals in the first half, but could only manage seven points, one rebound and one steal in the second.
After compiling 11 points, six rebounds and two assists in the first half, Powell was limited to three points, five rebounds and one assist in the second.
While junior forward Donta Scott did a solid job containing Powell, the Terps employed a variety of players in junior Hakim Hart, graduate student Xavier Green and Ayala to harass Shungu.
“I came into halftime telling the guys, ‘If we stop him, we’re winning the game,’” Ayala said. “He had most of their points in the first half, and I think he got tired. We were wearing him down and switching different guys and different defenders.”
Turgeon shared the same sentiment about Shungu’s energy levels during the course of the game.
“He had to carry the team, and he’d go by us in the first half, but in the second half, he couldn’t go by us as well,” he said. “We guarded the ball better. And I thought we faked and recovered better. We were kind of standing and watching, and we wanted to stay home because they have a bunch of good shooters. We made them play one-on-one. Watch Vermont play – not today – and it’s really fun to watch. But we tried to get them out of that style and make them play one-on-one, and that’s a credit to our guys.”
Continuing a concerning trend of cold starts, Maryland scored four of the game’s first six points, but then was mired in a drought of more than four minutes. During that span, the Catamounts scored nine unanswered points to assume an 11-4 advantage.
Scott’s layup broke the spell for the Terps, but Vermont scored four more points to enjoy its largest lead of the game of nine points at 15-6. Graduate student forward Simon Wright’s 3-pointer with 12:39 left in the first half ensured that Maryland would not have to wait 24:35 for its first 3 as it did in Thursday night’s 71-64 win against George Washington.
Russell, who accumulated five rebounds and two assists, attributed the offense’s slow start to “maybe just a little bit of nerves.”
“We knew that Vermont was a really good team, and we knew that we had to come out and compete,” he said. “They stuck it to us in the beginning. So all credit to them. They’re fantastic. But in the second half, we battled back and made adjustments and got the win.”
Freshman forward James Graham III missed his second consecutive game for violating unspecified team rules. Turgeon was tight-lipped about a timetable for Graham’s return.
“We just had too much going in between,” he said, referring to the team’s two games in three days. “So I’ll meet with James on Monday. We’ll see where it goes from there.”
Davis, the reigning America East Conference Player of the Year, chipped in eight points and three rebounds for Vermont in his first game since battling a viral infection. Catamounts coach John Becker credited Maryland with limiting his team’s offensive opportunities down the stretch.
“I thought their defensive effort in the second half was better,” he said. “You could feel them a lot more, and they did a great job on Shungu. I thought we missed a lot of shots that we normally make. That happens. Then Fatts and Ayala down the stretch were able to make plays, and that’s what it came down to. They made some plays, and we didn’t.”
GEORGE MASON@NO. 21 MARYLAND
Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
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