Maryland picked up its second straight win on Monday night in a 67-61 victory over Penn State in College Park.
The Terps bucked its recent trend of poor performances against the Nittany Lions, where Maryland had lost four of its last five games against Penn State heading into Monday.
The Terps used a balanced scoring attack to pull away from Penn State in the second half after heading into halftime tied. Senior guard Eric Ayala, who is nursing a wrist injury, played limited, but phenomenal minutes off the bench, giving Maryland the offensive boost it desperately needed.
The Terps improve to 5-11 in the Big Ten and move into a tie for 11th place in the conference.
Let’s get to the takeaways from the evening.
Contributions came from all over for Maryland.
Maryland’s offensive has been incredibly balanced in recent games, particularly with Ayala playing limited minutes with a wrist injury. Against Penn State, a team that plays at a noticeably slow pace, the Terps had to dig deep to find the necessary scoring to fight for its second consecutive win.
Eight players entered the scoring column for Maryland, with point guard Fatts Russell leading the way with 18.
In the two games since Ayala has returned from his one-game absence, he hasn't been the dominant scoring guard the Terps usually run their offense through. However, he still has made his presence felt, connecting from long-range when his team relies on him, including a big one in the second half to cap off a 6-0 run for Maryland and extend its lead to seven.
He only played 17 minutes against the Nittany Lions but scored 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting.
Ayala’s backcourt partner Fatts Russell had a quiet showing in the first half, but exploded in the second half, scoring all 18 of his points in the latter period.
Forward Donta Scott was the only other player to score in double figures with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting. Junior Hakim Hart also added eight points in the win.
When the Terps’ offense is at its best, it is moving the ball and getting contributions from a plethora of guys.
“It’s exciting to see everybody contribute because everybody can score,” Scott said.
Eric Ayala returned to form in the win.
Ayala missed the Terps’ game against Purdue nine days ago due to an apparent wrist injury that he suffered against Iowa. He came back the following game against Nebraska but was particularly quiet offensively and it appeared like his wrist was bothering him.
However, against Penn State on Monday night, Ayala returned to the sharpshooting, aggressive scoring guard Maryland fans have come to know over the last four seasons.
Ayala nailed three threes en route to 13 points. While he didn't carry a huge load in terms of minutes like he has most of this season, he was still productive in the 17 minutes he did spend on the court.
Even if he’s not scoring the ball at a high level, his presence and the threat of him as a shooter is something opponents have to account for. It’s hard to know the severity of the wrist injury or how it will impact him going forward.
But even if Ayala continues to play limited minutes in the final few games, having him on the floor for any period of time is certainly better than not.
“In the second half, he came in and made some plays that we’re used to Eric making,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “The more comfortable he is, and the more minutes he’s going to get, he’ll get back to his regular load I anticipate fairly soon.”
Maryland has a chance to advance its standing in the Big Ten.
While Maryland still sits in the basement of the Big Ten standings, among teams with no chance of making the NCAA Tournament unless a miraculous conference tournament championship run occurs, there is now a pathway to avoid the first round of the Big Ten tournament and have a bye to the second round.
The bottom four teams in the conference play in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, with the No. 11 seed playing the No. 14 seed and the No. 12 seed matching up with the No. 13 seed. The No. 10 seed and every seed below them advances either right to the second round or the quarterfinals, depending on the seed.
Coming into Monday’s game, Maryland was in 12th place. However, with the win, Maryland improved to 5-11, tied for 11th place in the conference with Northwestern, who Maryland split the season series with this season. Penn State is still ahead of Maryland in 10th place with a 6-10 record.
With four games remaining, Maryland will have a chance to catch Penn State, especially considering the Terps now have the edge in head-to-head matchups if they have the same record at the conclusion of the season.
Maryland’s final four games are against Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan State. The Terps will certainly be favored in their matchup against Minnesota at home, and if they can grab an upset win down the line, they might just avoid the bottom four, sneak into 10th place and automatically advance to the second round of the Big Ten tournament set to kick off March 9.
The Nittany Lions do, however, play winnable games the rest of the season against Northwestern and Nebraska, so Maryland will need some help from its Big Ten counterparts to help it climb in the standings.
“We’re just trying to build some type of momentum, some type of, like, energy going into the Big Ten tournament, and once you get in there, you just never know what can happen,” Russell said.