WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When the final buzzer of the final game sounded on Saturday, March 20, there were 32 men’s college basketball teams still vying for a national championship. Maryland was one of them.
The No. 10-seed Terps, undermanned and undersized all season, outlasted No. 7-seed Connecticut in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, with a 63-54 victory putting an exclamation point on a months-long collective improvement. A Maryland team that was 4-9 in the Big Ten and had a losing Division I record in early February took command of this matchup in the first half and had more than enough firepower to withstand a late charge.
“We got better as the game went on. Our defense got better as the game went on,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said. “And we made just enough shots and got some layups and made some free throws, and beat a really, really good team, a team that’s been really hot. … Just a great win for us. To be 4-9 in league and now have a win in the NCAA Tournament against a really good team, it’s a great night for Maryland basketball.”
Maryland’s defense locked down the Huskies well enough to overcome a miserable start on the boards. UConn grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in the first 14 minutes of game time and finished with 22; the Terps hadn’t allowed more than 14 offensive boards in any game this season. But the Huskies shot an abysmal 9-of-39 (23.1 percent) in the first half and finished the contest just 21-of-65 (32.3 percent).
“We’ve become incredibly tough-minded and tough physically, and we really lock in on defense,” Turgeon said. “It’s the only chance we have. It’s really the only chance we have. If we don’t guard, we have no chance. So it’s been great to see.”
On the other end of the floor, Eric Ayala took control early and his teammates closed the door late. Ayala scored 14 of Maryland’s first 21 points en route to a 23-point showing on 8-of-14 shooting. The junior has been Maryland’s leading scorer all season, and he delivered one of his best performances under the brightest lights.
“It’s do or die at this point. You’ve got to leave it all out there, empty the tank,” Ayala said. “I wasn’t ready to go home today. I’ve been having a nice time out here, and the whole environment is just a special place to be. As a college basketball player, as a child, you dream of being in this environment. And I’m just going to keep dreaming at this point. Just my energy, my intensity, I kind of lead in that way, hoping that guys see my energy and it rubs off on other people.”
Fellow junior guard Aaron Wiggins scored eight of his 14 points in the second half, while sophomore forward Donta Scott chipped in 12. Darryl Morsell had seven points and seven rebounds while leading the defensive effort. And all six of Hakim Hart’s points came in the second half as the intensity heightened.
Maryland shot 22-of-43 (51.2 percent) from the field and 9-of-18 from 3-point range. The Terps built their first-half lead on a remarkable 6-of-8 clip from distance in the period.
UConn rode James Bouknight, as it’s done all season, and the sophomore tallied 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Backup guard Jalen Gaffney went 4-of-6 for 12 points. But the Huskies were cold as a group. Point guard R.J. Cole’s nine points came on just 3-of-12 shooting. Tyrese Martin was a ghastly 1-of-10 for two points. Even 22 offensive rebounds, somehow, only led to 11 second-chance points.
The Huskies also did themselves no favors at the free-throw line, connecting on just five of their 12 attempts. Bouknight, an 81.3 percent foul shooter, went 2-of-6 at the stripe. Maryland’s 10-of-14 clip wasn’t inspiring in its own right, but the Terps made the ones that counted most.
Maryland’s rebounding woes started early, as the Huskies had seven offensive boards in the first five minutes, but strong shooting kept the Terps afloat, as they led for most of the early proceedings. After UConn took a 19-18 lead with 7:56 remaining in the period, Maryland turned the tide with a 10-0 run. Ayala started the burst with a triple, giving him 14 of Maryland’s first 21 points. Scott followed with a banked-in triple that resulted in a miraculous 4-point play. Then Wiggins sank a 3 from the corner and the lead was suddenly 28-19.
Maryland’s defense kept the clamps on UConn down the stretch of the half, allowing just one Tyler Polley triple at the 3:38 mark. The Terps ultimately took a 33-22 lead into the locker room, closing the half on a 15-2 run and forcing 15 Huskies misses on their final 16 shot attempts of the period.
Both offenses were in rhythm to start the second half, with Maryland starting 6-of-9 from the field to UConn’s 5-of-9. The Terps led by as many as 14, and the margin was still 12 when Wiggins hit a triple at the 7:00 mark. But then Maryland’s offense tightened up, and even with the defense holding its own, the Huskies slowly trimmed the lead to 53-48 on Bouknight’s jumper with 2:53 to play.
Maryland pushed the margin back to nine points as Ayala and Morsell hit four consecutive free throws, but Gaffney got one back at the line and the Huskies’ press defense forced a turnover, with a bucket on the ensuing possession making it 57-51 with 1:34 left. Continued pressure forced the Terps to call timeout, but the offense settled down and found Hart for a clutch layup. The lead reached 61-52 after an exchange of free throws, and Hart’s breakaway dunk with 30 seconds left was the dagger.
It was never going to be easy or stress-free. Morsell fouled out with 1:50 remaining, and Wiggins played the final 2:29 with four fouls of his own. Turgeon inserted forward Jairus Hamilton for Morsell, and it’s unclear who was the next man up if Wiggins picked up his fifth. The Terps, of course, were happy not to find out.
A Monday, March 22, matchup with No. 2-seed Alabama awaits. The Crimson Tide won the SEC regular-season and tournament championships and will enter this game as the heavy favorite. But the Terps have given themselves a shot. And in March, that’s all they can ask for.
“Right now it’s enjoy this one. Are you kidding me? It’s so hard for us to win. We’re going to enjoy the heck out of this one,” Turgeon said. “I haven’t watched a second of Alabama. I watched a little of their championship game, saw them a few times this year. They’re terrific. To me, they’re the fifth No. 1 seed. … I’ll start working on it on the bus home maybe. I want to enjoy it as long as I can. And we’ll start getting prepared for them tomorrow.”
— Hart’s impact on this game was understated most of the way, but his two buckets in the last 1:09 pushed Maryland over the top. The sophomore, who assumed increased point guard duties midway through the season, tallied six points, five rebounds and four assists; his 36 minutes tied Morsell for the team lead.
“He’s the key — the games he’s played well, I don’t think we’ve lost,” Ayala said. “He’s just an amazing player, watching his growth from last year and having him step into a role this year where we actually count on him a lot. And he’s tough. He’s smart. And I trust him a lot. He’s a big kid and it’s just a blessing to see him have success on this stage.”
— This is Maryland’s fifth NCAA Tournament appearance under Turgeon, all coming in the last six tournaments. But it’s the Terps’ first win against a power-conference opponent in the dance since 2009 against California — which, ironically, was also the last time the Terps were seeded this low after making the dance. Maryland has now won 14 of 15 first-round tournament games as a program dating back to 1998.
— The Alabama matchup is both a reunion and a revenge game for Galin Smith, who joined the Terps as a graduate transfer this offseason after three years with the Crimson Tide. Smith averaged 3.2 points and 2.3 rebounds in 94 appearances at Alabama, and entered the tournament posting 3.8 and 2.4 for the Terps in similar minutes. But given his familiarity with Maryland’s next opponent, he’s sure to be as fired up as anyone.
Photo Credit: 2021 NCAA Photos