CHICAGO — Eric Ayala has gained a reputation for being a better-than-average 3-point shooter during his freshman year at Maryland.
Perhaps more than any of the other four freshmen in coach Mark Turgeon’s rotation, Ayala has also proven to be a straight shooter.
So it was no surprise what Ayala said after being asked Thursday about the No. 21 Terps not using their youth as an excuse for their late-season troubles.
After losing to No. 13 seed Nebraska in its Big Ten tournament opener, Maryland will go into the 2019 NCAA tournament with three defeats in its past four games.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do, and go out there and win basketball games,” Ayala said Thursday, sitting in the team’s church-quiet dressing room at United Center. “It don’t matter if we’re freshmen or not.
“We’ve got to go out and compete to the highest level. We’ve got a Maryland jersey on. It’s high-level basketball. If you’re here, you’re here for a reason. … We’ve got to play basketball.”
Ayala is not alone in that belief.
Echoing Ayala, freshman wing Aaron Wiggins said, “Our youth doesn’t matter anymore. How many games have we played, 30-something games? At this point, it’s just a matter of being prepared as a team and locked in.”
As much as Turgeon has talked about how he has the youngest team in the Big Ten, and fourth-youngest in the country, his players don’t want to use that as a reason to explain some of their most disappointing losses.
It might have held some truth in early December, when Maryland couldn’t put away Purdue in a 62-60 road loss or even when the Terps lost at home to Seton Hall later that month.
It also might have been the difference in not being able to beat then-No. 9 Michigan at home March 3, losing 69-62 when they couldn’t score or stop the Wolverines down the stretch.
But Maryland’s two most disappointing losses of the season — a 78-61 demolition Feb. 27 at Penn State and Thursday against the undermanned Cornhuskers — had less to do with the freshmen than two of its upperclassmen.
It was more the uninspired play of junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and sophomore center Bruno Fernando that led to the third straight first-game loss for the Terps in the Big Ten tournament and the fifth straight overall in the postseason.
Cowan scored just one point against Nebraska in the first half before a late-game flurry where he scored 16 points in the final 10 minutes after the Terps had fallen behind by as many as 14 points.
Fernando finished with a season-low three points, going scoreless in the second half. He also tied a season low by taking just three shots while being double and tripled teamed by Nebraska.
“That’s like one of the hardest things, when Bruno doesn’t get going, everybody’s got to step up their role to try to help the team in as many roles as they can,” said freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), who scored six of his eight points in the first half.
The most experienced player on the team — and the only one to start an NCAA tournament game, as a freshman two years ago — Cowan knows he will have to come out faster in Maryland's NCAA tournament opener than he did Thursday.
“I keep saying it, but I’ve got to be more aggressive, especially at the beginning of the game,” Cowan said.
Even though the Terps are young in terms of year in school, they’re older by age.
Ayala, who took an extra year of post-graduate basketball, and Wiggins both turned 20 on the same day in early January, and are less than a year younger than former Terp and current Atlanta Hawks rookie Kevin Huerter.
Smith turned 19 on Saturday and is now the same age of shooting guard Serrel Smith Jr. Ricky Lindo Jr., who was still 17 when he signed with the Terps in August, is the baby in this group.
While Maryland will likely be the second-youngest team by class in the field of 68 NCAA tournament teams — behind only Kentucky — Turgeon is hoping the experience his team has gained will help it survive longer than many expect given the recent slump.
Asked Thursday if he thought his team learned the difference between the regular season and the postseason, Turgeon said he wasn’t sure after a performance that was as puzzling as the no-show at Penn State.
“Oh, I don't know,” he said. “People make a lot out of that. We're the fourth-youngest team, and we played like it today. I don't know if it was the building. We didn't know who we were playing [before Nebraska beat Rutgers on Wednesday night]. We seemed locked in. When we found out it was Nebraska, we had a good walk-through last night, good film session.
“I felt we were prepared. We just didn't play well. We have to learn from this. Last year, we were sitting here, we lost a game to Wisconsin in New York, and we were praying to get into the NIT, OK? We're in the NCAA tournament. It's been a heck of a year for us.”
Turgeon was asked if losing to the Cornhuskers damaged Maryland’s collective confidence.
“Well, we've bounced back all year in a lot of situations,” he said. “So I plan for us to do the same thing. We're going to have extra practices now, obviously, that we didn't want.
“I think the game experience probably would have been a little better for us than practices. We practiced well this week. That's the thing that's tough for me right now sitting in front of you. We really practiced well this week.”
Turgeon said that the chance to play in the NCAA tournament will be enough to motivate his team.
“We're going to be real excited when our name pops up,” Turgeon said. “Whoever it is is going to be a really good team, and we're going to have to play better than we did today to have a chance.”
Wiggins said it will begin with what the Terps take with them from their short trip to the Big Ten tournament.
“I definitely think we can learn from this loss, for sure,” Wiggins said. “Getting off to a slow start, we’ve got to take into account that we still have a chance to play our way through and possibly win the NCAA tournament. We’ve just got to make sure we come out every game with the same confidence and the same energy.”