Maryland men’s basketball snapped a two-game losing streak Dec. 22 with an 84-71 victory against La Salle in College Park, Md.

The Terps (5-2, 0-1 Big Ten) led for 38:44 of game time and kept a distance of at least seven points the entire second half. Maryland pulled away late in the first period, closing the half on a 10-0 run to take a 40-25 lead into the locker room. La Salle’s hot shooting kept the game within shouting distance down the stretch, but the Explorers couldn’t quite give Maryland a serious scare.

Eric Ayala posted a career-high 23 points in a performance highlighted by a 13-of-15 showing at the free-throw line. Aaron Wiggins notched 15 points and nine rebounds, Hakim Hart chipped in 13 points, Donta Scott tallied 11 and Jairus Hamilton scored 10 (all in the first half).

Maryland’s shooting improved after clunkers against Clemson and Rutgers, but the Terps still shot 46.2 percent from the field and just 25 percent on 3-pointers. They also struggled from the line in the first half (4-of-10) before Ayala led a stronger effort in the second half (13-of-14). La Salle stayed in the game on the strength of 14 made triples on 29 attempts (48.3 percent). The Terps gained separation in the turnover battle, forcing 13 and committing just four, and also outscored the Explorers 44-14 in the paint.

“We had great energy, and we kept it,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “There were times when we couldn’t score and they were hitting shots and we lost a little bit of the momentum, but our energy was terrific.

“Our guys had fun tonight. They were laughing in the locker room after the game. They were really excited about some of the things they did tonight. So we took a step in the right direction. We got better tonight, which is good.”

While it wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, it was a comfortable win for a team that needed one. Here’s a rundown of storylines from the victory.

1. Maryland ran a much thinner rotation than Turgeon might have hoped, as the Explorers stayed in the game throughout the second half. The Terps kept the same lineup — Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Wiggins, Hart and Scott — for the final 6:12, and those five logged 88 of 100 second-half minutes.

Hart taking Hamilton’s place in the crunch-time five might be a one-off against a small La Salle team, or it might be the start of a trend. Hamilton, who led all scorers with 10 points in the first half, played just six minutes after the break. Galin Smith, Chol Marial and Marcus Dockery logged two second-half minutes each. Marial had two blocks in the first half, but still isn’t seeing much high-leverage action. Smith battled foul trouble and played just nine minutes; he entered once in the final 19:06.

2. Ayala has been Maryland’s lead guard by necessity this season with Anthony Cowan Jr. gone, and he’s risen to the task. The junior is now averaging a team-high 14.6 points per game and has been in double figures six times, and he’s up to 30-of-33 (91.9 percent) from the foul line. Ayala is also averaging 30.3 minutes per contest, including 37 and 35 in the last two games. While Wiggins and Scott might have higher upside, Ayala is establishing himself as a go-to option in his third season.

3. Neither Wiggins nor Morsell was especially efficient in this game — Wiggins shot 7-of-16 while Morsell went 3-of-11. But both were able to contribute on both ends of the floor, as Wiggins pulled down nine rebounds and Morsell had five boards and two steals. The Terps aren’t going anywhere if these two struggle like they have lately, so they hope this game can steer the duo on the proper track.

4. Hart scored in double figures for the third time this season, and the sophomore is becoming a more consistent factor in the rotation. While his 32-point outburst Dec. 4 against Saint Peter’s will probably remain an outlier, he’s clearly become a much more confident and consistent player. Hart made just 1 of 6 triples and 5 of 11 field goals overall but contributed six rebounds, three assists and three steals in a strong two-way showing.

Donta Scott

5. Donta Scott turned in another efficient performance, quietly finishing with 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting with seven rebounds. He wasn’t quiet on this play, though. The Philadelphia native’s putback slam brought roars to the empty Xfinity Center as the Maryland bench went wild.

“All I saw was the rim,” Scott said. “It was good to see my guys cheering me on and get the burst of energy.”

6. Maryland continued a trend of strong finishes to the first half, closing the period on a 10-0 run to bring the lead from five to 15. In seven games this season, the Terps have closed first halves on runs of 16-4 (Old Dominion), 12-5 (Navy), 10-2 (Mount St. Mary’s) and 13-4 (Rutgers) in addition to this.

7. Aquan Smart, the freshman who’s served as Ayala’s backup so far this season, did not appear in this game, with fellow rookie Marcus Dockery stepping in. Dockery, who had played just 12 minutes across four games before Dec. 22, was a minus-5 in five scoreless minutes. Turgeon wasn’t asked after the game why Smart was unavailable, so we’ll have to wait and see if he’s back Friday.

8. The disparity in Maryland’s team shooting in the first four and last three games remains jarring. The Terps made 56 percent of their field goals and 42.5 percent of their triples in the first four. They’re now at 40.3 and 30.4 percent in the last three. Maryland’s effective field goal percentage was best in the country two weeks ago; it’s now 41st. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but Maryland will need to heat back up to make noise in the Big Ten.

“I just said it in the locker room to some of the guys — imagine if we made shots,” Wiggins said. “We didn’t shoot the ball too well, but if we made shots, we win that game by 25, 30, so ‚Ķ it’s still something that we gotta work on, continue to stay confident.”

9. The Terps committed just four turnovers as a team against the Explorers; their season average through six contests was 12.2 giveaways per game. Maryland forced 13 La Salle turnovers — including seven steals — and converted them into 16 points. If the shots aren’t falling, those free possessions are a nice help.

10. Now it gets real. The Terps’ final 19 games are all against Big Ten foes, and the conference has shown incredible depth early in the season. KenPom’s predictive rankings have Maryland 49th overall and all the way down at 11th in the league, with two more teams in the 50s. The Terps’ next six games are an absolute gauntlet, including four matchups with ranked opponents.

Dec. 25 at Purdue
Dec. 28 at No. 9 Wisconsin
Dec. 31 vs. No. 19 Michigan
Jan. 4 at Indiana
Jan. 7 vs. No. 4 Iowa
Jan. 10 at No. 18 Illinois

The Christmas Day visit to Purdue is crucial to the outlook of Maryland’s season. The Boilermakers haven’t established themselves quite like the other teams on this list, and they won’t have their usual boisterous Mackey Arena crowd in a pandemic. A win would bring Maryland to 1-1 in the league, while a loss would drop the Terps to 0-2 with more trouble ahead.

Until then, let’s see that Scott dunk again.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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