Eric Ayala sprinted ahead of the pack, took the outlet pass and broke for the rim. The Maryland men’s basketball sophomore guard had one man to beat during an early December matchup against Notre Dame. He and Fighting Irish senior forward Rex Pflueger leapt at the same time from roughly the same spot, halfway up the lane. Ayala won the battle, slamming it down as Xfinity Center erupted. He turned to the crowd and let out a roar before scampering back on defense.
Ayala isn’t known for flashy moments, although his highlight reel is becoming sneaky impressive. He lost 10 pounds this offseason, which has helped improve his explosiveness. And with a year of college hoops experience, the 6-foot-5, 195-pound combo guard knows how to more consistently be in the right spot.
“I’m still a little surprised myself,” Ayala said of the dunk. “I put a lot of a lot of work this offseason into my body and it’s starting to pay off. It’s all coming along.”
The dunk capped off a late first-half run during which Ayala scored seven straight Maryland points. He finished the victory with 14. Less than a week earlier, he had a similar takeover in the final minutes against Temple, scoring seven of his 13 points in the final two minutes en route to a Maryland victory.
The Terps are one of the most talented teams in the country, and they don’t need Ayala to be a star every night. But it’s always helpful to have someone who can get hot like that.
“Eric saw an opportunity, and the whole team, we’re all confident in him,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said. “When he feels like he can make a play, go ahead and make that play. … It’s great to see.”
Through 11 games, Ayala was third on the Terps in scoring at 11.0 points per game. But Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon has raved most of all about Ayala’s defense, saying he’s “twice the defender he was last year.” Ayala hasn’t been getting many steals, but his on-ball defense has helped the Terps limit opponents to 37.4 percent shooting for the season.
“We’ve got a year under our belt and we know where to be in the right spots,” Ayala said of the Terps’ defensive improvement. “Coach trusts us to fly around, and we can switch a lot now because we’re more experienced. Coach trusts us a lot to go out there and execute the defensive game plan he’s set up for us.”
Ayala grew up in Wilmington, Del., but he knew he’d need to leave his hometown to reach his potential. Ayala spent his junior and senior seasons at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut, then enrolled at IMG Academy for a postgraduate year in 2017-18.
Turgeon recruited Ayala for three years, but it was far from a given that he’d wind up in College Park, Md. Maryland’s 2018 class was always going to be a pivotal one for Turgeon, and the Terps swung for the fences with several five-star prospects. They landed a commitment from power forward Jalen Smith in June 2017. They went after wing Cam Reddish early in the process and center Moses Brown that fall. Ayala officially visited campus along with five-star guards Keldon Johnson and Devon Dotson.
Basketball recruiting can be like high-stakes musical chairs at times. Two weeks after the trio took that official visit, Dotson committed to Kansas. Ayala committed to the Terps just one day later. He became Maryland’s third commit of the cycle, joining Smith and four-star wing Aaron Wiggins.
When the 2018-19 season began, Ayala, Smith and Wiggins had more on their plate than expected. Maryland came up short with Johnson and Brown, instead supplementing the blue-chippers with three-star prospects Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo. And when the Terps lost Kevin Huerter to the 2018 NBA Draft, Ayala was forced directly into the starting lineup. He started 33 of Maryland’s 34 games as a freshman.
Ayala offered the Terps a steady presence all season. He averaged 29 minutes per game, third most on the team, and ranked fourth with 8.8 points and second with 2.1 assists a night. He stepped in as Maryland’s point guard when workhorse Anthony Cowan Jr. needed a breather. Turgeon said Ayala’s outside shooting was initially a question mark, but he made 40.6 percent of his 3-pointers and was actually better than 47 percent as late as mid-February.
This year, his role has been different. With Wiggins forcing his way into a starting spot and Turgeon opting to start two big men, Ayala came off the bench in six of Maryland’s first seven games. Players with his starting experience don’t always take well to that, but Ayala never complained.
“Eric’s the embodiment of just playing for the team,” Jalen Smith said. “I know he wants to start deep down, but he knows what’s best for the team, so he just comes off [the bench] and tries to give us anything he can.”
In search of a change after numerous slow starts, Turgeon inserted Ayala into the starting lineup for Maryland’s Dec. 1 game against Marquette in the Orlando Invitational final. The Terps played their best half of the season, taking a 42-21 lead into the break and winning by the same 21-point margin.
Ayala has a maturity that comes from his childhood in Wilmington and the various stops in his basketball career. He’s willing and able to settle into the background, but when he finds himself at center stage, he knows he can rise to the moment.
“It’s a learning experience to put the team first and not be so selfish and [say], ‘I want to start,'” Ayala said, “but [I’m not] about that. I just want to win. At the end of the day, winning is the most important thing for me.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox