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Maryland men’s basketball surges in second half, defeats Lehigh 76-55

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The Terps outscored the Mountain Hawks 39-21 in the second half.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

With Maryland men’s basketball slowly building a steady second-half lead, Lehigh was trying to make a run in the second half. Lehigh’s guard Ben Knostman drove baseline and tried to throw a pass across the court. Maryland guard Hakim Hart stepped in the passing lane and intercepted the ball for his fifth steal of the game, a career-high.

He then took it down the other end, drove to the basket and got fouled, knocking down both free throws to give Maryland a 16-point lead, its largest of the game. The Terps' second-half defense, led by Hart, allowed them to run away from Lehigh in the latter half, outscoring them 39-21.

In a tale of two halves, Maryland overcame a slow start en route to a dominant 76-55 win over Lehigh in College Park on Tuesday night.

The Terps used a balanced scoring attack led by Eric Ayala’s 20 points to propel them to the blowout win. Maryland had five guys in double figures, including Donta Scott who finished with 17 points.

“I think we’re on the right trajectory as a team,” Ayala said. “We’re going in the right direction and, you know, we’re just trying to get some wins.”

Maryland hadn't played a game since its Dec. 12 win over then-No. 20 Florida and hadn't played on its home floor since Dec. 5.

Lehigh wasn't the original opponent on the schedule for Maryland, as they were supposed to take on Loyola (Md.), but that game was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within Loyola’s program. Instead, Maryland scheduled Lehigh, who was 1-9 coming into the matchup, just a couple of days in advance of Tuesday’s game.

That resulted in a shaky start for Maryland that saw them commit three early turnovers and give up easy baskets to the Mountain Hawks.

Lehigh jumped out to an early 10-8 lead thanks to a multitude of offensive sets with numerous screens and off-ball cutting that Maryland struggled to guard. It wasn’t just the poor defense that contributed to the slow start. The Terps turnover problem carried over past the long break.

Before Maryland could even attempt to get into its offense, travels and offensive fouls contributed led to an influx of turnovers. The Terps gave the ball back to the Mountain Hawks five times through the first 10 minutes, leading to a 15-12 Lehigh lead. Maryland had at least 13 turnovers in each of its past five games and had eight in the first half against Lehigh.

“They scored the ball a little bit too easy, in our estimation, shot too high of a percentage,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “I thought the guys did a terrific job of responding in the second half.”

Whether it was due to rust, a lackluster environment at the Xfinity Center or playing an opponent with just one win through 10 games, it took Maryland quite a bit of time to get on track on Tuesday night. But eventually, Maryland started to find its groove.

Trailing 19-16, it was the freshman Julian Reese who hit Maryland’s first three-pointer of the game to tie the score with over seven minutes remaining in the first half.

From there, it was back-to-back paint baskets from forward Donta Scott and center Qudus Wahab that gave Maryland a four-point lead, its largest lead of the game at that point.

Ayala fought for an offensive rebound the next trip down, ripping it away from a Lehigh player to get the score for Ayala’s first points of the game that capped off a 9-0 Maryland run.

With Maryland only up by four, Ayala, after starting out the game quiet, began to take over, scoring seven of Maryland’s next nine points to give the Terps an eight-point advantage with four minutes to go in the half.

Despite the run, Lehigh refused to back down. The Mountain Hawks went on a 7-0 run of their own to cut the Terps’ lead to three. Once again, it was Ayala who stopped the bleeding as he drained a catch-and-shoot three from the right wing, his second of the day.

Lehigh made another three with under a minute to go in the half to send the game into the break with Maryland leading 37-34. Lehigh was shooting just 38% from the field per game on the season coming into College Park, but in the first half against Maryland, they were hitting 45% of its shots.

After a lethargic and poor defensive first half from Maryland that saw them play with little energy, it was the Terps who came out firing early to start the second half.

“It was just, for a lack of a better word, aggressive counseling at halftime. That’s what it came down to,” Manning said. “We challenged our guys to come out and play with a little bit more effort, a little bit more energy, and our guys responded well.”

It was the veteran Ayala who continued his hot shooting into the second half. He scored six of Maryland’s first eight points in the half, including a step-back three, his third of the evening on as many attempts to allow Maryland to jump out to a nine-point lead through the first five minutes.

The biggest second-half adjustment that led to Maryland blowing up the game was on the defensive end. The Terps began to lock in and shut down the Mountain Hawks from scoring any easy baskets. Lehigh scored just two points through the first seven minutes of the latter half.

Maryland’s steady and balanced scoring led to them slowly building a secure lead. The Terps went on a 13-2 run to start the second half.

With a number of options who can score close to the basket, Maryland continued to dominate inside with paint touches and downhill drives against an undersized team.

However, the Terps' big second half didn't come without a cost. With around nine minutes remaining in the game, point guard Fatts Russell drove in the lane and banged his knee on a Lehigh player, causing him to hit the floor in pain and stay there for many minutes. He did not return the rest of the game but did stay on the bench.

That didn't stop Maryland from continuing to pile on the Mountain Hawks, going on a 12-2 run over a four-minute span in the final 10 minutes of the contest.

Maryland outscored Lehigh 39-21 in the second half and held them to 17% shooting in the final 20 minutes to improve to 7-4 on the season.

Three things to know

1. Maryland dominated in the paint. Maryland had remarkable success in the paint against a smaller, weaker Patriot League opponent. Maryland outrebounded Lehigh 21-10 in the first half and 46-28 for the game. Maryland had 36 paint points to Lehigh’s 20. The Terps’ two bigs, Reese and Wahab, were the primary paint scorers as they finished with 12 and 11 points, respectively.

“I thought out big guys did a terrific job of establishing post position,” Manning said.

2. Maryland couldn't avoid another slow start. While there are plethora of reasons Maryland could have started slow in this game, including a long layoff in between games, the reality is this team has started slow in virtually every game this season. While it is rare for Maryland to be leading at halftime regardless of the opponent and they were up at half against Lehigh, to be up only three against a 1-9 team is not what Maryland was hoping for when they scheduled Lehigh on short notice. As Big Ten play picks up in the coming weeks, it will be hard for Maryland to win many games with poor, unenergetic starts.

3. Fatts Russell went down with an injury. Russell went down with what appeared to be a knee injury after banging his knee on a defender. He was down for a while and did not leave the court until he was helped off and putting little pressure on the injured knee. Russell did not return the rest of the game. It is unclear the extent of the injury, but if Russell misses any amount of time, it will be detrimental to this Maryland team. He is the primary ball handler, controls the tempo of the game and is more than capable of providing a scoring burst when he needs to.

After the game, Manning said there was no official update on Russell, but that he thinks he banged knees and he will be evaluated.