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Ayala, Wiggins lead Maryland men’s basketball to 68-57 win over Michigan State, first conference tournament victory in five years

The Maryland men’s basketball team’s Big Ten tournament opener against Michigan State didn’t start the same way as the first meeting at Xfinity Center, a 73-55 win for the home team on Feb. 28.

But as time progressed, it played out in a similar fashion.

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Eighth-seeded Maryland rallied from a 12-point first-half deficit to beat ninth-seeded Michigan State, 68-57, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Thursday afternoon. It’s the first conference tournament victory since 2016 for the Terps, who seemingly cemented their spot in the NCAA tournament with the convincing win.

Maryland (16-12, 10-11 Big Ten) will face top-seeded and fourth-ranked Michigan (19-3, 14-3), which swept the regular-season series, in the quarterfinals at 11:30 a.m. Friday.

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“It just shows our toughness,” said junior guard Aaron Wiggins, who scored 19 points and became the 57th player in program history to reach 1,000 career points.

“No matter the situation, we’re tough enough to overcome. I think you’re going to get a lot of teams’ best shots when their backs are against the wall, kind of. I don’t really think for us our backs were against the wall. We had the two losses to end the regular season but it was just a matter of us bouncing back. We wanted to come out here and show that we’re still one of those top teams in our conference and we’re here to compete.”

Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins follows through on a dunk over Michigan State forward Thomas Kithier during a Big Ten tournament game in Indianapolis on Thursday.
Maryland guard Aaron Wiggins follows through on a dunk over Michigan State forward Thomas Kithier during a Big Ten tournament game in Indianapolis on Thursday. (Michael Conroy)

Wiggins’ backcourt mate Eric Ayala recorded a game-high 21 points on 10-for-11 shooting from the free-throw line as the Terps, who made 23 of 24 attempts from the charity stripe in the first meeting against the Spartans, made 20 of 28 in the rematch despite shooting less than 40% from the field.

A 13-2 run by Michigan State gave the Spartans a 17-6 lead just six minutes into the game and they led 23-11 with 10:21 left in the first half. A wing 3-pointer by junior forward Jairus Hamilton (nine points) broke a streak of five minutes without a made field goal for the Terps.

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Maryland ended the half on a 23-7 run, and a 3-pointer off the dribble by Ayala as time expired gave the Terps a 34-30 lead at halftime.

“The first media timeout, I got on them pretty good,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We just weren’t competing, we were missing assignments defensively. The way we play defensively, if one guy screws up, we’re all screwed. So, we fixed that. Post defense got better. Our switching got better. Our transition got better. We quit turning the ball over, which helped our defense.”

The Spartans did not make a field goal over the final 5:40 of the first half. Just four of Maryland’s points in the opening 20 minutes came from 2-point range; 15 came from 3-pointers and another 15 from free throws. The Terps shot 15-for-16 from the free-throw line in the first half.

“Wiggins, they were playing as a shooter, they were closing out hard,” Turgeon said. “They blocked his shot in the corner when we could have cut it to two and I’m like, ‘Would you start ripping and driving it please?’ And that’s what he did. He started ripping and driving and he was able to get to the rim, got a dunk there in the first half. And then that opened up the rest of the game.”

Said Wiggins: “I think it kind of spaced the floor a little bit. Got our guards some more open looks, kind of opened up the court a little bit. Got guys driving lanes. So, it made us a lot tougher to guard.”

Maryland guard Eric Ayala, left, celebrates with guard Hakim Hart after being fouled on a shot against Michigan State during a Big Ten tournament game in Indianapolis on Thursday.
Maryland guard Eric Ayala, left, celebrates with guard Hakim Hart after being fouled on a shot against Michigan State during a Big Ten tournament game in Indianapolis on Thursday. (Michael Conroy)

An 8-0 run to start the second half, and a 31-7 run dating to the first, pushed Maryland’s lead to 40-30 less than five minutes into the half.

The Spartans missed their first eight shots in the second half. A driving layup more than six minutes in represented Michigan State’s first points since the 1:23 mark of the first half.

A three-point play from Ayala gave the Terps their largest lead of the game, 59-40, with 7:13 remaining.

Michigan State (15-12, 9-12) committed 18 turnovers and Maryland scored 27 points off the mistakes. The Spartans, who were led by forward Malik Hall’s 19 points, shot 38% from the field in the second half, and anytime they could muster quality possessions together, the Terps had an answer.

Turgeon highlighted a 5-0 run by senior guard Darryl Morsell (seven points) that quickly stymied any momentum Michigan State gathered after it got to within eight, 42-34, with 12:10 left in the game.

“We need guys to play well,” Turgeon said. “We need four guys, four-and-a-half guys offensively to play well for us to win. That’s just the bottom line. And today we had that.”

After two straight losses to end the regular season, including a five-point loss on Senior Night to Penn State last Sunday, Turgeon said he was concerned about “our confidence and our swagger.”

“Those last two losses stunned us, kind of gutted us,” he said.

But after the first-half comeback and eventual victory, he characterized the game as a “shot in the arm” ahead of the team’s matchup with Michigan.

While Turgeon said the postgame atmosphere wasn’t full of players “jumping around in the locker room,” the win also reaffirmed his belief that they had already done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“I felt before today that we were going to be in the NCAA tournament. I didn’t feel pressured like we had to win and the players didn’t either. We had a meeting Monday night, a Zoom meeting because we didn’t get together to tell Darryl that he was [Big Ten] Defensive Player of the Year. And I said, ‘Guys, we’re in. We’re in the tournament. We just need to relax, have more fun and play.’

“We were still a little bit wounded when we came to practice Tuesday. But as the practice went on, you could see the guys start to get their swagger back and play well.”

Big Ten quarterfinals

MICHIGAN VS. MARYLAND

Friday, 11:30 a.m.

TV: BTN Radio: 105.7 FM

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