Minnesota forward Jamison Battle was borderline unconscious shooting the ball in the second half and his 3-pointer, which was his 39th point of the evening, pulled the Golden Gophers to within two on Maryland men's basketball with the clock dwindling.
However, senior guard Eric Ayala wasn’t going to let Battle steal the spotlight in the Terps’ last home game of the regular season.
Ayala found himself wide open on the right corner soon after Battle’s 3-point shot. The four-year player for Maryland drained a shot from beyond the arc to replenish the Terps’ lead, boosting the home side’s advantage to 73-68.
Ayala’s clutch 3-pointer on senior night gave Maryland enough leeway to pull away on the scoreboard for the rest of the game as it captured a 84-73 win over Minnesota on Wednesday night in College Park, marking its second straight win.
“Obviously it’s always nice to win the senior night game, we have a lot of seniors that were able to step out onto the court,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “So this night was all about them and to be able to finish the final Big Ten game at home with a win is always something special.”
Maryland is now a winner of four of its last five, dating back to the program’s triumph over Nebraska in mid-February. It improved its conference record to 7-12, while its overall record reached the .500 mark. The Terps have just one game left in the regular season as they will meet the Michigan State Spartans on the road Sunday. After that matchup, the Big Ten tournament is set to begin on March 9.
“We dangerous man,” Ayala said. “I said it in my last postgame... I wouldn't want to play us... you know we’re hot right now.”
The Terps found plenty of success offensively right off the bat against Minnesota.
Buckets from three different players gave Maryland an early 8-5 lead. Ayala, who averaged 16.5 points in two wins against the Golden Gophers last season, opened the game with two baskets on two straight attempts.
Maryland’s energized start, in which it saw six of its seven shots fall, was met with some resistance from Minnesota. Guard Payton Willis especially had his way with the Terps’ defense in the first five minutes, starting 3-for-3 from the floor for eight points.
The Golden Gophers were red-hot from beyond the arc as they tried to play senior night spoiler in College Park. Minnesota managed to grab a 21-20 lead by the under-12 timeout after knocking down five of its first six 3-point shots, with Willis and Battle chipping in with four of those makes.
Maryland continually crashed the offensive glass, which aided its first-half effort and allowed it to build some momentum. An offensive rebound from freshman forward Julian Reese quickly translated into a 3-pointer from graduate guard Xavier Green. Fellow graduate guard Fatts Russell came right back on the next possession and raced towards the basket, having successfully fooled his defender into believing that he was going to rise up, then calmly dished it off to Reese for a dunk.
The Terps still found themselves in a neck-and-neck battle with the under .500 Golden Gophers, who came into the game only ahead of Nebraska in the Big Ten standings.
Junior guard Hakim Hart’s first made field goal of the contest put Maryland up 29-26, a lead that Maryland soon after extended with a difficult layup from Qudus Wahab. Junior forward Donta Scott’s 3-pointer, Maryland’s second made three of the game up to that point, to go in the first half kept the Terps at a five-point distance from Minnesota with just under five minutes to go in the first half.
Even though it went over three minutes without a point to end the half, Maryland eventually went into the break up 41-37, going 56% from the floor as a team. Minnesota stayed afloat in the first half off 7-for-15 shooting from deep.
Russell helped alleviate the rust that the Terps showed to end the opening half. Russell’s and-one layup with plenty of contact got Maryland going to begin the period and then Hart added another basket as the lead grew to eight.
Minnesota was held without a field goal for nearly three minutes before it hit its first basket of the half, though the Terps went on a significant drought of their own. The Golden Gophers reeled the score back to 47-44 in favor of Maryland with under 15 minutes left. Battle was a catalyst to start the half, ripping off the Golden Gophers’ first seven points to up his total 27 points.
Maryland still found a way to stretch its lead, despite Minnesota on the edge of getting even on the scoreboard. Back-to-back buckets from Reese gave the freshman eight points as the Terps grew their lead to double-digits. He added another bucket from inside the paint a few possessions later to the delight of the Maryland crowd.
Battle’s 34 points by the 10:12 mark still weren’t enough to give Minnesota enough firepower as the Terps comfortably maintained a 10-point lead. But just four minutes later, the Golden Gophers started to creep back into the game.
The Terps’ lead shrunk to just five points and the tension began to build in Xfinity Center.
Ayala stepped up from beyond the arc to stop Maryland’s scoring drought, but another 3-pointer from Willis kept the margin at a reachable distance. The Golden Gophers trailed 66-63 heading into the final four minutes.
Battle’s offensive magic pulled the Golden Gophers to within two points, but Ayala rained down a big shot from deep in response to build its lead back up. Hart swished home another triple, pushing Maryland’s lead back up to a formidable and unreachable margin.
Even Kyiv, Ukraine, native Pavlo Dziuba made his way onto the floor for Maryland before the clock reached zero. The sophomore received an eruption of applause to close out the 11-point win.
Three things to know
1. Maryland honored its seniors in front of its fans. The Terps honored four seniors in their last home game for the 2021-22 season: Eric Ayala, Fatts Russell, Xavier Green and Simon Wright. Ayala is the longest-tenured Terp out of the quartet, having been with the program since coming on as a freshman in the 2018-19 season. Ayala is top-25 all-time in Maryland scoring, top-three all-time in 3-pointers made and he’s over the century mark in total starts as a Terp.
Looking at the remaining three players, they all joined the program this season as graduate transfers. Russell has easily been the most impactful out of the transfer trio, though Green has constantly found himself in the rotation. Wright, who transferred from Elon, started in one game this season. The seniors all combined for a grand total of 34 points for Maryland on Wednesday night.
2. Maryland’s track record against Minnesota remains fairly unblemished. The hosts entered the midweek game with a strong 12-2 all-time record against Minnesota, which dates back to 1960, and it made it 13 wins after the effort at home. With the victory, Maryland has won seven straight meetings against the Golden Gophers. The Terps are now 7-1 at home in the all-time series.
3. The Terps are on one of their more successful stretches of the season. Besides its road loss to Indiana, Maryland has been perfect since Feb. 18. The Terps have now beaten Nebraska, Penn State, then-No. 22 Ohio State and now Minnesota over the last five games. Maryland will have a chance to play itself out of the bottom-four of the Big Ten standings ahead of the Big Ten tournament. If the Terps can outlast Penn State and Northwestern, Maryland might just afford itself a first-round bye in the upcoming conference tournament.
“We’re trying to get that bye,” Russell said. “You know, I know we’re close to it and we got to finish out strong but you know, that’s what we’ve been looking forward to and we’ve been talking about it cause, you know, five games in five days is very tough.”