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Maryland men’s basketball’s backcourt needs to keep clicking with two important games approaching

Eric Ayala and Fatts Russell have shown what they can do when they’re both at their best.

Wisconsin v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

It didn't matter where the shots were coming from.

They just kept on falling for Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala.

And even though Maryland had a double-digit second-half lead for the second time this season against Rutgers, the Terps needed their backcourt to finish the job. Time and time again on the road, just one game after beating then-No. 17 Illinois, Ayala and Russell helped Maryland look like the preseason top-25 team it was deemed to be originally in Piscataway, New Jersey on Tuesday night.

Ayala and Russell snatched a home win from Rutgers almost single-handedly with their shots that ranged from just about anywhere on the court. Whether it be hitting step-back contested threes or driving into a crowded paint and finding success, Maryland’s top point-getters in the backcourt thrived against an otherwise answerless Scarlet Knights defense.

Russell’s fourth three-pointer with just over 16 minutes left in the second half to go up 41-28 was just one of the many acts in the three-point barrage that would ensue all night long. Ayala nailed a catch-and-shoot three 20 or so seconds later, then he came right back with a driving layup, only to be followed by back-to-back three-pointers that came around 16 seconds apart to all but solidify Maryland’s second road win of the season.

The exclamation point arrived at the 10:32 mark when the 2022 Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award Watch List selection decided that he had enough. Contrary to the first meeting between these two teams when the Scarlet Knights shocked the Terps at home in the last few minutes of the game, Maryland never surrendered its lead.

Ayala caught the ball directly in front of the Rutgers’ big red “R” logo at center court, but it already seemed like he had made his decision before even touching the rock.

After a quick moment of hesitation, Ayala rose up and almost abruptly released a three. It may as well have been from Manhattan, but what was likely the senior’s deepest made-three of the season splashed home to give the Terps an unreachable 54-38 advantage.

“That was a deep one,” Ayala said a little jokingly after the game about his borderline logo shot. “Just confident though pretty much. Just going with the game, going with the flow of the game... just staying aggressive.”

That’s just the kind of night it was. It was the kind of night that Maryland needed it to be.

Entering this past Tuesday’s contest, the Terps needed to build off their 16-point upset win over the Fighting Illini. With nine losses at this point in the season, A hungry Maryland was desperate to string together some sort of winning streak. It’s safe to say that the backcourt duo came through.

Russell, who had reached the 20-point scoring mark just twice heading into the second Rutgers matchup, exploded offensively. He tied his season-high with 23 points and used his magical three-point shooting to get there. Russell blew his previous season-high in threes out the window with five makes on eight attempts.

“For me, I just feel like we work really hard,” Russell said. “It’s finally starting to show. We have confidence in each other.”

It was the first time that Russell hit 3-plus threes in a single game since Dec. 12 and it was also the first time in four games that he connected on multiple threes.

“Fatts is a confident young man and we’re confident in him,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “He got it going early, made some big time shots for us late in the shot clock... but you know when Fatts has it going like that and then he’s able to get to the paint as well, just a terrific job.”

Then there was the primary scorer, Ayala. After putting up only 19 points in the win over Illinois, Ayala delivered another second-half masterclass. He hit 5-of-8 shots over the last 20 minutes alone and collected 15 points to lead Maryland to victory. Finishing with 22 total points, it was the seventh time that Ayala ended with at least 20 points this season. He also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.

Everything that Ayala and Russell did against Rutgers opened up the world for the Terps on the court, especially offensively. Coming up with just 68 points may not seem like a lot but the improved efficiency is what made the difference for the Terps.

Maryland finished with a season-best 12 threes and shot close to 50% from the floor. And more importantly, it held onto a second-half lead against a conference opponent. The Terps held an advantage on the scoreboard for 36:30 of the 40-minute game and never let Rutgers breathe at any point.

At the end of 40 minutes, Ayala and Russell had combined for 45 of the Terps’ 68 points (66%) and 10-for-17 shooting from three-point range.

“This is one of the few games that we’ve had two guys go off like this offensively throughout the course of the season,” Manning said after the Rutgers game. “...So we get two guys to score like this, you know, we’re a dangerous team.”

And Maryland will certainly need more of that from its backcourt if it hopes to make a late push for the postseason. Because not only did the performances of Ayala and Russell push Maryland to its 11th total win and third conference victory of the season, it gave the program a pulse moving forward.

Maryland is a winner of two straight games for the first time since it took down Lehigh and Brown in late December. It may not seem like a lot initially, but capturing those wins over Rutgers and Illinois gifted the Terps life after a 1-6 start in Big Ten play. Maryland is inching up the Big Ten standings, moving ahead of the likes of Penn State, Minnesota, Northwestern and Nebraska as of late.

Despite the upward trend, the toughest challenges are still ahead for Maryland.

The next two matchups for the Terps will be critical. Especially at this point of the season, Maryland will have to forge a few upsets in College Park against stronger Big Ten opponents. And wouldn't you know it, two talented teams will give Maryland a chance to continue its momentum over the next few days.

Indiana and Michigan State will both be making the trips to Xfinity Center over the span of four days.

Indiana will be the next opponent Maryland sees on Saturday afternoon. The Hoosiers sit with a 15-5 record, along with a 6-4 conference record, but they have had their ups and downs these last five games under head coach Mike Woodson. After falling to Iowa, Indiana has gone 3-1 over its last four. It has defeated then-No. 4 Purdue and most recently beat Penn State in a 17-point home win.

The Hoosiers currently sit at the No. 32 spot in the KenPom rankings and then Maryland’s opponent after is ranked a little bit higher. The Michigan State Spartans are in the No. 18 position in KenPom even after its one-point loss to a short-handed Illinois program on the road.

Michigan State is third in the Big Ten with a stellar 6-2 conference record. The Spartans, led by head coach Tom Izzo, have still beaten their fair share of programs this season, having bested Loyola Chicago, UConn, Wisconsin and Minnesota twice.

Undoubtedly, these will be two difficult matchups at home where the Terps are 7-5. Maryland will need to replicate the performance it had against Rutgers and to do that, Ayala and Russell will need to be at the forefront of the scoring effort.

And although Maryland may not get 45 combined points every night from its backcourt duo of Ayala and Russell, that will be alright. That would simply be too unreasonable. Yet the feeling is that they need to keep their momentum going if Maryland’s postseason aspirations are to stay afloat in a packed Big Ten.

The back-half of the regular season is underway, and the backcourt may just be the key to Maryland securing wins against Indiana and Michigan State. If not, Maryland will need to claw back even further in road matchups coming up against Ohio State and Purdue.

Maryland’s focus will need to be on winning at least one of the next two games. The backcourt will need to deliver once again in matchups with two of the top programs in the nation in the conference, and if it doesn’t, the path to any kind of postseason redemption gets that much more difficult.