With just over three minutes to go in No. 21 Maryland men’s basketball’s matchup with Vermont, the Catamounts had possession trailing by four. A shot went up that led to a long rebound with both teams diving on the floor, clawing for the ball. Transfer guard Xavier Green dove on the floor, preventing the ball from going out of bounds.
Maryland came down the other end with guard Eric Ayala driving to the hoop and getting fouled, where he knocked down a pair of free throws. Maryland got another stop the next play and this time it was guard Fatts Russell who nailed a midrange jumper. Stop, score. Stop, score.
Maryland’s late-game defense and fluid offense allowed it to overcome early game struggles, edging out Vermont 68-57 on Saturday afternoon in College Park. Behind Russell and Ayala’s dominant 22-point performances, Maryland pulled away in the second half to improve to 3-0 in its opening week of action.
“That last ten minutes was as good as one of my teams have ever played defensively,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “That was something else. We did a great job of playing shots.”
Following Thursday night's win over George Washington, a game in which the Terps had to come back and overcome a slow start, Maryland’s early game struggles continued against Vermont.
Maryland was plagued with a lethargic offense at the tip, failing to create opportunities or knock down shots. Four minutes in, Maryland trailed 9-4.
Maryland then went over three minutes in the game without scoring a basket, allowing Vermont to extend its lead to nine. That drought was ended when forward Simon Wright splashed a three-pointer from the top of the key. Wright saw limited action in the first two games, but Turgeon called his name and Wright delivered, providing a much-needed offensive spark off the bench for the Terps.
“We love him, all the guys love him,” Turgeon said about Wright. “He’s really smart. He knows every position on the floor.”
Despite a little run from Maryland, Vermont did not get frazzled on the road. They continued to drive down the lane and break free from Maryland’s defenders for open looks from beyond the arc and at the rim.
Maryland had cut the lead to four with under 10 minutes to play thanks to a Donta Scott drive and an Ayala three, but the Catamounts countered right back with a 4-0 run of their own.
With over seven minutes to go in the first half, the Terps trailed by seven. Against a weaker, less talented opponent Maryland was getting outworked and out-smarted on its home court for much of the first half.
Ayala had the ball on the left sideline right in front of the Vermont bench with under seven minutes to go. He tried to make a move to the basket before getting tangled up with a Vermont defender.
The tie-up escalated into a skirmish with teammates and coaches rushing over to break the two up. There were no fouls issued on the play, but Maryland came out of the encounter energized.
“He got me fired up,” Ayala said. “That play happened and then I think we all just kind of, you know, felt that energy.”
From that moment, Maryland went on an 11-3 run to recapture its first lead since the opening minute of the game. Despite the shooting struggles, Maryland found other ways to score by getting downhill and looks closer to the basket.
However, the defensive continued to falter, allowing Vermont to go on a 6-0 in the final minute of the half to take a 36-32 halftime lead. The Terps shot 2-for-11 from three in the first half and 32% from the field.
“I don't have an answer for the shooting problems,” Turgeon said. “We’re down at half because Vermont’s really good.”
The two teams traded baskets as the second half got underway, but it was a plethora of two-point baskets that allowed the Terps to keep pace with Vermont. A theme throughout the short season, Maryland could not get anything going from three out of the break as they started the half 0-for-3 from downtown.
With Maryland trailing by one, it was Russell who knocked down a three from the left wing, a familiar spot on the floor, to give Maryland a two-point lead. It was Russell’s first three-pointer made since his dagger in Thursday’s win over George Washington, a shot also made from the same spot on the floor.
Russell began to take over in the second half, scoring seven of the Terps' first 14 second-half points.
With Maryland leading by three and eleven minutes to go, Julian Reese got a shot to go, followed by an Ayala corner three to give Maryland an eight-point lead and put the crowd into a frenzy.
However, Vermont countered with back-to-back three-pointers of its own. Once again, it was Russell who nailed a long ball from the top of the key off the dribble to push the lead back to five with under eight minutes to go.
The scrappiness between the teams continued with Ayala getting into it once again after he was fouled. This time it resulted in a double technical foul for Ayala and Vermont’s Robin Duncan.
“I think we are so talented that teams are going to try to out-tough us this year, so we got to make that statement that we’re not one of those teams,” Ayala said.
From there, Maryland’s defensive intensity picked up, leading to transition baskets that allowed the Terps to pull away from a tough Vermont opponent.
Three things to know
1. Maryland first-half struggles continue. Maryland’s slow starts are becoming commonplace. In the second game in which the Terps were favored by double-digit points, they trailed at halftime. Shooting struggles and defensive miscues have contributed to the slow starts, but against stronger opponents, these struggles will be much more difficult to overcome.
2. Donta Scott hasn't looked like himself the first week. Maryland’s star forward, who was expected to take another leap this season, is not off to the best start this season. Scott is struggling to score the ball in the way Maryland fans saw last year. He is forcing a ton of shots. Against Vermont, he was 2-for-8 from the field and 0-for-4 from three at the half. He finished with four points on 2-for-10 shooting. Scott has proven to be a terrific, three-level scorer, so fans should not expect these struggles to continue.
3. The shooting woes continued for Maryland. On paper, Maryland has plenty of players capable of knocking down three-pointers at a consistent level. However, to start the season, the Terps have really struggled to shoot from distance, which has allowed their opponents to build an early lead and stay in games. Maryland was 6-for-27 from three on Saturday and shot 37% from the field. The Terps were 9-for-27 from three entering the game.
“There’s no concern,” Russell said. “We’re going to make shots. We got a lot of shotmakers on this team. I know coach Turgeon doesn't have any concern and we don’t as well.”