Maryland men’s basketball had one of its toughest tasks of the season on Sunday night. It went into the second half down seven points against a No. 23 Wisconsin team that held a 9-0 record coming into the game when it led going into halftime.
But with 3.9 seconds remaining in the game, Maryland was still alive down just one to the 12-2 Badgers.
Senior guard Eric Ayala surged back in the second half with 16 points after going scoreless in the first half, then he hit 19 with an off-balanced three-pointer to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 70-69 to keep the Terps’ hopes alive. Maryland fouled with just a few ticks on the clock, Wisconsin’s Brad Davison missed both at the line and then forward Donta Scott kicked out the rebound to Ayala.
Ayala raced up the court with the little time he had, then sailed his hail mary of a heave wide left of the basket and Maryland’s upset hopes officially vanished. The buzzer went off and cut the Terps’ comeback effort short as they fell to the Badgers, 70-69 in College Park.
“I think we’ve got some grit and we have some tenacity,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “I don’t like it when you give up such an early lead like we did tonight, but we’ve shown that we have the wherewithal to continue to find a way to claw, fight and scratch and get back into the ball game. No moral victories... I feel like we’re close to turning the corner.”
The loss marks Maryland’s seventh loss of the season in 15 games. The Terps have yet to win a Big Ten game and they are now 0-4 in conference play.
Maryland entered Sunday’s game with two straight losses, both of which came against Big Ten teams. Wisconsin was the Terps’ second ranked opponent of the season and the first ranked Big Ten opponent that it has faced, and the Badgers were just as advertised right away.
It took a minute and a half for the Badgers to rip off an abrupt 7-0 run before Maryland seemed to find its footing. Sophomore Johnny Davis, the Badgers’ most talented guard who averaged 22.6 points coming into the game for the fourth-highest total in the nation, scored seven points in about four minutes to help Wisconsin to an 11-4 lead.
Manning turned to his bench early on in an attempt to cure his team’s 2-for-8 shooting start and the depth was something that the Terps didn’t utilize much in their last two losses to Iowa and Illinois.
Still, even with the attempted adjustments, Wisconsin continued to pile it on. Junior forward Tyler Wahl drove inside and successfully connected on a layup, along with the foul, to gift Wisconsin its first double-digit lead soon after the 14-minute mark of the first half passed. The Badgers scored 10 of its opening 18 points in the paint.
Maryland’s ineffectiveness on offense was extremely noticeable. Ayala started off scoreless with an 0-for-4 shooting clip, while no one on the roster had more than two points at the 11:46 mark.
Long-time Badger Brad Davison’s first points of the night came in the form of a three-pointer and Wisconsin bursted ahead with a 23-6 advantage on the scoreboard.
Nothing was coming easy for the Terps against a team that allowed just 63.1 points per game entering Sunday. With just over seven minutes left in the first half, Maryland had more turnovers (six) than field goals made (five).
However, the struggles dissipated near the end of the first half and the Terps slowly began to chip into their opponent’s lead. A made shot from guard Fatts Russell gave his team 7 consecutive points. Soon after, Scott drilled another three-pointer and drew a foul, and he finished off the four-point play to shrink the Wisconsin lead to 29-19.
Graduate guard Xavier Green, who averaged just 1.3 points per game, then hit a mid-range jumper to give himself a new season-high with five points as Maryland deflated the margin six.
Maryland fought its way back after facing a 21-point deficit in the first half and it trailed by just seven going into halftime down 33-26. Scott and junior guard Hakim Hart combined for 15 points, while there wasn’t much production elsewhere. Maryland’s top two scorers, Ayala and Russell, added two points while shooting 1-for-8.
Maryland had a tall task ahead of it as Wisconsin held a 9-0 record coming into the game when it had a lead going into the second half.
Russell was ready for the second-half challenge though and scored two straight buckets to pull Maryland within three points.
Ayala sank his first field goal of the day just before the 16-minute mark to bring the score to 35-33 in favor of Wisconsin. He then came right back on the next possession and visibly started to play with more energy, pulling up once more and connecting on another three-pointer to give Maryland its first lead of the game.
Ayala’s first six points of the day helped Maryland to a 10-2 run to begin the second half. He drilled another three with under 14 minutes left to tie the game at 39 apiece and even fought his way inside for an and-one just a few possessions later. After going scoreless in the first half, Ayala scored 12 points to keep Maryland within striking distance.
Both teams were in a back and forth battle heading into the final 10 minutes with Wisconsin holding a slight one-point lead at 51-50 with under eight minutes to play.
A three-pointer from a typical defender in Green put Maryland and Wisconsin at a tie, and then the former Old Dominion guard hit double figures with another jumper.
“Just my teammates, for real, building confidence in me, getting those passes to me and me being ready to shoot and it just all just translated and felt good out there,” Green said after collecting a season-high in points.
Russell picked up his fourth foul and was forced to hit the bench with around five minutes remaining, though Ayala picked up the slack and knocked down a jumper to bring the game to 57-57.
Wisconsin led by five with under three minutes remaining after a three from Wahl and a jumper from Davis. Hart shrunk the deficit to 62-59 and then the junior came right back in transition to make it a one-point game.
Maryland trailed 64-61 with 42.8 seconds left and then by four with just over 20 seconds remaining as it got into a free throw battle with the Badgers.
Ayala’s fourth three of the game made it 70-69, but that would be it for Maryland. The senior’s buzzer-beater from very far out didn’t fall and the Terps suffered the one-point loss to drop to 8-7 on the season.
“We got a lot of fight, we got a lot of fight in our team,” Ayala said. “I think, you know, we came out in that second half and it’s been kind of like a little trajectory with our team... we come out in the second half but, you know we right there... if anybody didn’t notice that we right there.”
Three things to know
1. Eric Ayala was cold in the first half but improved as the game went along. The All-Big Ten senior guard was averaging 19.2 points over his last five games, shooting 54.4% from the field and 48% from beyond the arc. However, Maryland’s top scorer was largely ineffective in the first half. He finished the opening minutes with zero points in 12 minutes, missing all five of his shots in the first 20 minutes. He quickly turned the tide in the second half and sank his first two shots of the night to give him six points. Ayala ended up with 19 points and had quite the turnaround in the second half.
“I thought he just made his mind up to go play. Not saying that he didn’t feel like that to start the game but you know, I don’t know how many halves that Eric has played in [has he] offensively had a half like he did in the first half,” Manning said about Ayala’s performance in the second half. “I think a lot of it, just he felt like, you know, ‘I gotta go make some plays for my team, I got to make some shots from my team’ and he certainly did that in the second half.”
2. Maryland’s bench had its chance to contribute. After not much bench action in the Iowa and Illinois contests, Manning opted to utilize it much more. Green played 14 first-half minutes, while guard Ian Martinez played for seven in the first half as well. Even forward Simon Wright saw action in the opening half, along with Julian Reese playing his usual minutes down low. Green was the only bench player to score in the first half, though, with five points.
Green continued to be the only standout bench player the rest of the way. He scored 10 points while the rest of Maryland’s bench combined for just two points.
“Xavier Green was outstanding tonight, he should’ve played more, that’s why he did,” Manning said.
3. Maryland’s winless streak in the Big Ten continued on Sunday night. Maryland came into the matchup with the Badgers as a fairly surprising one-point favorite, but that expectation was short-lived. Wisconsin broke free early in the first half and although Maryland kept it somewhat within distance, the Badgers pulled away to hand the Terps their third-straight loss. With the loss to the Badgers, Maryland fell to 0-4 in Big Ten play. Maryland was a preseason top-25 team and to come away without a win in its first four conference games is quite the disappointment. The Terps have dropped games to Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois and now Wisconsin. All of those conference losses came under interim head coach Danny Manning. Maryland will next play against Northwestern on the road on Jan. 12.