With the game on the line and Maryland men’s basketball needing a bucket to take a last-minute lead, head coach Mark Turgeon knew the ball needed to be in the hands of either Aaron Wiggins or Eric Ayala. It would be hard to blame him — the two junior guards had been the Terps’ bedrocks all season and the anchors of Maryland’s late-February surge.
On Wednesday, March 3, though, only Wiggins was in form. He had 26 points, surpassing his previous career high of 22, on 10-of-15 shooting from the field and a 5-of-9 clip from 3-point range. Ayala, meanwhile, was 2-of-10 for just five points. The Terps outside of Wiggins and senior Darryl Morsell had struggled all night; that’s how they found themselves trailing 7-14 Northwestern, 56-55, with 28.7 seconds to play.
Maryland got the ball to Ayala with an open look. He fired and clanked the triple. Northwestern pulled down the rebound, made two free throws and watched as Morsell’s 3-pointer went wide on the next possession. As the final buzzer sounded, Northwestern came away with a 60-55 victory in Evanston, Ill., and the Terps saw their five-game losing streak come to a stunning end.
“We just weren’t really locked in as a unit,” Wiggins said.
When the Terps jumped out to a 9-0 lead before the first media timeout, it looked like a rout might be on the horizon. Instead, Northwestern surged back to take a lead at 13-11, and no team led by more than six points from then on. The Wildcats led 28-26 at halftime thanks to eight first-half 3s, then led for most of the second half before Wiggins’ 3-point play gave Maryland a 51-50 lead with 4:02 left. Maryland then missed its last seven shots. Northwestern pulled ahead on a Ryan Young layup with 1:30 remaining and iced the game with its free throws late.
Outside of Wiggins and Morsell — who contributed 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists while shooting 6-of-8 from the floor — it was a putrid night for Maryland’s offense. The other six Terps to see game action combined for 15 points on 5-of-27 shooting. Ayala finished 2-of-12 for five points. Hakim Hart had six points on a 2-of-7 clip (but did pull down eight rebounds). Donta Scott went 1-of-7 for four points and committed five turnovers in one of his worst games all season. And the bench group of Jairus Hamilton, Galin Smith and Reese Mona went scoreless on one combined shot attempt.
Maryland ultimately shot 21-of-50 (42 percent) as a group, with a 10-of-27 second half weighing that down. Similarly, the Terps went just 5-of-16 on deep balls in the second half to slip to 9-of-26 (34.6 percent) for the game. Perhaps more concerning, though, were the 15 turnovers, up from seven in the team’s last outing against Michigan State.
“We got back to our inconsistencies when we weren’t a good team,” Turgeon said. “We got back to that team tonight.”
Northwestern was by no means an offensive juggernaut on this night, shooting 20-of-55 (36.4 percent) from the floor and 10-of-29 from deep thanks to a 2-of-10 second half. Miller Kopp, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer, was a scoreless 0-of-11. But his teammates picked up the slack — Boo Buie tallied 15 points, Chase Audige notched 14 and Pete Nance added 12 on 5-of-7 shooting. Northwestern grabbed eight offensive rebounds to Maryland’s five (this disparity was 6-0 at one point) and led 7-2 in second-chance points.
It was a physical game, but the whistles were few and far between most of the night. No free throws were awarded in the first half at all, and Maryland didn’t attempt its first until 6:31 remained in the game. The Terps finished 4-of-7 at the stripe; Northwestern went 10-of-11.
“I thought it was a very physical game. I kept saying, ‘It’s like a football game out here,’” Turgeon said. “We tried to get [to the foul line]. We tried to get there. We just couldn’t get there tonight.”
Despite spotty play on both ends of the floor, though, Maryland gave itself a chance. Wiggins’ career night kept the offense afloat, and the Terps’ defense held Northwestern to 60 points on 64 possessions — that’s nine of 11 opponents held under a point per possession — despite its own sporadic lapses. But the stops, and the shots, weren’t there at the end.
“We didn’t get the stops we needed to, that’s really what it came down to,” Morsell said. “We put ourselves in good positions offensively to make shots, we missed some free throws but I don’t think we got the stops we needed to at the end to win that game.”
Wiggins set career highs with his 26 points and 10 made field goals, continuing a personal surge that aligns with Maryland’s hot streak as a team (Wednesday notwithstanding). Since a two-point, 1-of-11 dud against Penn State Feb. 5, he’s averaging 18.4 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor and a 41 percent clip on 3s.
It’s also now a neck-and-neck race for Maryland’s leading scorer this season. Ayala, who’s held the lead all year, entered this game averaging 14.9 points per game to Wiggins’ 13.4. But with Wiggins outsourcing Ayala 26-5 in Evanston, Ayala’s lead is down to 14.50-14.49.
Ayala, who’s reached double figures in 20 of his 24 appearances this year, barely surpassed his season low of four points, which came against Wisconsin Jan. 27. Scott’s four points are also his second-lowest total of the year — he had two against Navy Nov. 27 — and his five turnovers are second-highest, behind a six-giveaway performance against Ohio State Feb. 8.
After being a bubble team for seemingly two months, Maryland went on a five-game winning streak to move itself well into the projected NCAA Tournament bracket — the Terps were a No. 9 seed in the Bracket Matrix entering this game. The strong run of recent play gave Maryland some breathing room, so this loss isn’t fatal to their postseason hopes. But it’s made the next week and a half more stressful than it could have been.
The Terps now have two Quadrant 2 losses, the first coming against Rutgers at home Dec. 14 (this was classified under Quadrant 1 for several weeks before the Scarlet Knights’ recent slide dropped their NET ranking outside the top 25). A potential loss to Penn State on Sunday, March 7, would be another Quadrant 2 defeat and put Maryland squarely back on the bubble entering the Big Ten tournament, a stage the Terps haven’t won on since 2016.
The loss also has seeding implications for the conference tournament, although those are less volatile at this point. Maryland had a chance to ascend to sixth place in the league standings if it won out, but it’s now tied with Rutgers for seventh. As On The Banks’ Aaron Breitman points out, the Scarlet Knights own the two-way tiebreaker over the Terps, but a three-way tie between those teams and Wisconsin is also in play.
A road win against Northwestern would likely have locked Maryland into the 2021 NCAA Tournament, a crowning achievement for a team with so many question marks not long ago. But this loss, and the performance that earned it, leave room for concern as the Terps enter the climax of their season.
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