Eric Ayala stood at the free-throw line knowing the game was in his hands. Maryland men’s basketball trailed No. 24 Purdue by one point with just 3.3 seconds on the clock. In all likelihood, the junior needed one made free throw to send the game to overtime and two to deliver his team the win.

Ayala delivered, and Maryland escaped with a 61-60 home victory against the Boilermakers in College Park, Md., Feb. 2. It’s only the Terps’ fourth win in conference play, but all four have come against ranked opponents, and this was their first Big Ten home victory of the year.

It took 40 minutes of grit, as Purdue led for 26:28 of game time compared to Maryland’s 5:21. The Terps never led by more than three points and trailed by as many as seven at multiple junctures, including with just 3:45 remaining. From there, though, Maryland closed on a 12-4 run to win by one.

“Tonight we battled,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We didn’t play exceptionally well the whole night, but we battled, we battled, we battled.”

Maryland’s second-half shooting helped the Terps overcome plenty of shortcomings.

The team ultimately shot 9-of-25 from 3-point range, slightly above its season average, but it reached that number in remarkable fashion. Maryland made just 1 of 12 attempts from deep in the first half, then flipped the script and went 8-of-13 in the second half. It’s as drastic a turnaround as you’ll see.

No player exemplified the changing fortunes quite like Aaron Wiggins, who scored 13 points in the second half to finish with a team-high 18. The junior shot just 2-of-7 from the field and 0-of-4 from distance in the opening period, then went 5-of-7 and 3-of-4 in just the first 11 minutes of the second half (he missed his last two attempts to close the game 7-of-16).

“Aaron is literally the true definition of a microwave to me,” Morsell said. “I see it in practice, I see it in the summer all the time — if Aaron makes one shot, I promise you every single time, I go to the entire team, ‘Find him. That next one is going up and it’s going in.’ … Midrange, three, anything. He’s really good. He’s talented.”

Ayala and Morsell warmed up in the second half as well. Ayala had 12 of his 16 in the period; like Wiggins, he knocked down three of four triples after intermission. Morsell had nine of his 11 in the second half, including six straight Maryland points in the final minutes. The veteran guard trio actually scored 34 of the Terps’ 37 second-half points — Donta Scott had the other three.

With Purdue dominating the Terps in several facets, Maryland needed every last one of those buckets.

The Boilermakers are a much bigger team than the Terps — then again, so is seemingly everyone in this league — and they played like it all night. Purdue grabbed 33 rebounds to the Terps’ 24, including a 10-3 advantage on the offensive boards that was 9-0 at one point. Star big man Trevion Williams piled up 23 points and 11 rebounds and shot 9-of-12 from the field. Maryland’s best low-post defender, Galin Smith, battled foul trouble in the second half, forcing the Terps to play even smaller than planned against Williams’ 6-foot-8, 265-pound wrecking ball of a frame.

Maryland’s defense continued its strong play overall, though, holding Purdue to 22-of-50 shooting from the field and 4-of-17 from distance. Boilermakers other than Williams and freshman Jaden Ivey — 14 points on a 5-of-13 clip — combined to shoot 8-of-25, with nobody else surpassing six points.

“We’ve got some guys that have been in a lot of close games, and we understand how important every possession is,” Morsell said, “so we knew in order to come back and win, we had to lock in and get some stops.”

It’s a much-needed bounce-back win after last week’s loss to Wisconsin.

Maryland’s offense has been inconsistent all season — as evidenced in this Purdue game — but against the Badgers on Wednesday, Jan. 27, it was just plain bad. In the first half that night, the Terps shot an appalling 7-of-28 from the field and 2-of-14 from distance. They had four points as late as the 10:06 mark in the period. And after trimming Wisconsin’s lead to 24-16, they found themselves down 38-20 at halftime.

The Terps came out of the locker room hot, knocking down 7 of 11 shots to start the second half. They went on a 20-5 run to bring the score to 43-40. But then came turnovers on three straight possessions, and an 11-0 Badgers run to make it 57-42, and a game that was suddenly out of reach for good this time. Wisconsin didn’t hit a field goal for the final 7:05 of game time and still won 61-55.

Wiggins led that second-half charge, too — he had 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the period after a two-point, 1-of-7 first half. Scott had 13 and Morsell had 11, but Ayala finished with four points on a dismal 1-of-10 shooting.

For both Ayala and the team at large, the Purdue game offered a chance at redemption. Maryland fell 73-70 to the Boilermakers on the road Christmas Day, with a 10-of-21 free-throw performance dooming a chance at a 15-point comeback. Now the Terps have alternated wins and losses in their last six Big Ten games, all against ranked opponents.

“We’ve lost some tough ones this year, so I think it was more about getting a win,” Ayala said. “The circumstances have been up against us, ranked teams coming in and us looking for a home win. … [I’m] just trying to play for my team at the end of the day.”

As the postseason discussion ramps up, Maryland has another massive win in the books.

It’s February, which means March is next month, which means the NCAA Tournament hype machine is alive and well. The Terps are squarely in the bubble conversation — ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had them as his first team out on the morning of Feb. 2, and the Bracket Matrix aggregate had Maryland narrowly on the outside as well.

If anything, these past two games are a microcosm of Maryland’s season. The Terps are undersized and inconsistent, which shouldn’t cut it against a loaded Big Ten that’s thrown nine ranked opponents at them in 11 games. This team is still just 4-7 in league play and 10-8 overall (9-8 against Division I opponents). But with four top-25 wins, including three on the road, Maryland’s shown to be a capable threat against anyone.

Staying in this conversation and ultimately making the dance will require the Terps to keep winning, but the schedule makes that at least plausible. After nine of Maryland’s first 11 league contests came against currently-ranked teams, only one of their last eight scheduled opponents (No. 7 Ohio State) fits that description. Five of those eight games are against squads currently behind the Terps in the Big Ten standings, and the program is still hopeful to reschedule a postponed home matchup with last-place Nebraska.

Nothing is guaranteed, though. Maryland visits Penn State on Friday, Feb. 5; the Terps have notoriously struggled in State College, Pa., for several years now. Then it’s Ohio State and Minnesota at home next week. This four-game stretch to begin February could set the tone for the rest of Maryland’s season, so the win against Purdue is a crucial first step.

“We’ve talked to our guys, ‘One game at a time, one practice at a time, don’t think about big picture and all that kind of stuff, just think about today and make the most of today,’ but today was real important,” Turgeon said. “It would’ve really made it difficult for us to be a part of a postseason if we didn’t win today. Now we’ve got four top-25 wins.

“I’m just happy for the guys, because it’s no fun losing. It’s no fun being 3-7. It’s no fun. And it’s no fun right now with COVID and everything that’s going on. So to get a little enjoyment and [for] guys to be happy and hugging each other and all that after the game, that’s really good medicine, good therapy for our guys. It was important — the next one becomes just as important, but hopefully we gained a little confidence tonight.”

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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