Equally important, the Terps showed that they had made progress overcoming the difficulties that plagued them with losses to Clemson and Rutgers.
With a one-handed putback dunk from Hakim Hart’s missed three-point attempt, the second striker, Donta Scott, brought the game to a climax about three minutes before the end. Scott jumped over a La Salle defender, and Maryland’s Bank broke out in disbelief. The game exuded the confidence, tenacity and energy that coach Mark Turgeon had hoped for in this matchup. And by then the Terps had finally sealed their victory.
“There were times when we couldn’t score and they shot and we lost a little momentum, but our energy was great,” said Turgeon. “Our boys had fun tonight.”
The two previous games in Maryland had presented a startling reality: performance of this caliber would not be enough to produce many positive results in the Big Ten game. And that game against the Explorers (3-5) provided Maryland, which dropped its conference opener for Rutgers, one final improvement before the more than two-month section of conference competition. So the Terps (5-2) not only wanted a win to end their losing streak, they also wanted some security that they could play much better than what they had recently shown.
Five Maryland players achieved double-digit results, a rounded performance reminiscent of the Terps’ success in the preseason. Junior guard Eric Ayala led the game with 23 points in 4v11. Ayala often made it to the foul line, scoring 13 out of 15 attempts. His performance spanned 15 points in the second half as the Explorers threatened Maryland’s lead. Ayala added three assists, including a pass to Hart for an alley-oop, another highlight reel game that extended Maryland’s lead to 12 but also resulted in a technical foul for pulling up on the edge.
The Explorers, ranked 174th out of 357 teams on Ken Pomeroy’s analytical ranking, reduced Maryland’s lead to just seven points in the second half. They made 14 out of 29 tries out of the three-point range that kept them in the game, only allowing Maryland to gain a comfortable advantage in the final minutes.
“We allowed La Salle too many open shots and they took advantage of those opportunities,” said Junior Guard Aaron Wiggins. “We still have to be better defensively, but I thought we were mostly tough. We pressed it in the second half when they were doing their runs. “
Wiggins, who recently dealt with an elbow injury, had a rebound game with 15 points and nine rebounds after scoring just six points in each of the previous two games. Hart (13 points), Scott (11) and junior striker Jairus Hamilton (10) rounded off the group of Terps, which reached a double-digit value. The Terps only had four turnovers, the least since February 1993.
“I think we’re just growing together,” said Ayala. “It’s a new team that has a lot of new players. Our chemistry is getting stronger. With every training session, every game, we get more and more a feeling for one another. It makes it easier for us to go out and play with each other. “
When the Terps lost their home to Rutgers last week, the Scarlet Knights bench was far louder and more involved. Turgeon said he showed his players a video of how the Rutgers bank reacted to a basket compared to Maryland’s reaction to the next possession. When you play in empty arenas, “you can turn a street game into a home game,” Turgeon said this week, “which I think Rutgers did with her enthusiasm.” On Tuesday, the Terps made obvious strides in this area, both with their energy on the sidelines and on the court.
A 7-foot-2 sophomore center, Chol Marial has had some solid stretches and ended with two blocks, a promising sign for Maryland if he can repeat that feat in the Big Ten game when Maryland takes on teams with formidable front courts Players. Marial only played six minutes, and the Terps’ upcoming opponents will prove to be far more challenging tests in the color.
Maryland got into a shooting slump for five minutes in the first half and made 1 of 8 attempts off the field. But Wiggins finished the skid with a steal and a score, followed by a three-pointer to the next possession. The junior played with the aggressiveness Maryland needs from him to be successful in more difficult matchups. The Terps ended halftime with a 10-0 run and led by 40:25 at halftime. In the last five minutes of the first half, Turgeon said: “We were on the defensive pretty much all year.”
David Beatty, the Explorers’ leading scorer at 10.4 points per game, only had three in the first half in a 6-1 draw. Beatty scored La Salle’s first points on a shot from deep, but he didn’t make another basket the rest of the way and ended with four points.
The Terps held La Salle at 32.1 percent in the first half, but the Explorers started the second half with three shots from three-point range in the first four minutes. By about mid-half, the explorers had fired 8 out of 12 shots and reduced their deficit to seven. Hart replied with a three-pointer to Maryland’s next possession. Soon after, the Terps forced two turnovers in two minutes, each time Maryland struck the following possession.
Maryland only made 7 out of 28 shots from three-point range for the game and missed 6 out of 10 free-throw attempts in the first half. After the game, Wiggins said to his teammates in the locker room: “Imagine we shot.”
The terps are still not where they need to be in the range, and if they can score a few more three points, a tight second half will become a dominant win in a game like Tuesday’s. But the Terps will take the boost of security as they set off for a massive marathon of the Big Ten games that begins in Purdue on Christmas Day. These performances will prove whether the improvement Maryland showed against La Salle is sustainable against tougher opponents.
“We’re getting closer,” said Turgeon. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.”