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Aaron Wiggins gives No. 3 Maryland men’s basketball energy boost in 72-51 win over Notre Dame

The Terps win their first Big Ten/ACC Challenge since switching conferences.

Aaron Wiggins, Maryland men’s basketball, Notre Dame Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

No. 3 Maryland men’s basketball guard Aaron Wiggins caught an inbounds pass from Anthony Cowan Jr. on the right wing with 5.8 seconds left in the first half and launched up a three-pointer. Just after his release, he sprinted towards the rim, almost sensing his shot would be off-line.

His instinct was right, as the ball clanged off the short side of the rim and deflected off the backboard. With just a couple seconds remaining, Wiggins flew after the loose ball through a pair of Notre Dame defenders and corralled it, slamming a ferocious putback to end the half with a knockout punch in the first game of Fight Week.

Wiggins’ slam capped off a 21-7 run over the final eight minutes of the first half to propel the Terps from a deficit to a 12-point lead, and they never looked back in their 72-51 win over the Irish.

“That’s something I would do in video games” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said. “I thought somebody else shot it and then he put it back. But for him to shoot it and then go get it, that was impressive.”

Maryland is now 9-0 for the first time since the 1998-99 season and takes its first Big Ten/ACC challenge victory since switching conferences.

At the 8:09 mark, Maryland had just 11 points after it was plagued by yet another slow start offensively. The Terps were just 5-of-21 from the field and had missed all of their 10 three-pointers, and Wiggins had missed his first five shots.

With the offense failing to get going, the defense had to step up. And as it has all season long, it rose to the occasion, and Wiggins made the biggest difference on that end of the court to spark the group’s energy.

With 6:35 remaining in the first half, Notre Dame’s T.J. Gibbs drove on Maryland’s Eric Ayala and had a wide-open layup opportunity, lofting the ball towards the basket without a contest from the sophomore combo guard.

But before it could make its way to the backboard, it was violently swatted away by a trailing Wiggins — his second of three blocks on the night — who sent the ball flying past the fans sitting courtside. Jalen Smith dove into the crowd to get after the loose ball but couldn’t get to it in time, giving the Irish another chance at a possession.

Just over 20 seconds later, Rex Pflueger caught the ball on the left baseline and took off towards the rim. He drove at full speed and was met by Wiggins, who stood tall and absorbed the hit to draw the charge, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

“Aaron Wiggins has become a phenomenal defender — guarding the ball, communicating, rebounding,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We work hard on [defense].”

Maryland held Notre Dame to just 21.4 percent shooting over the final 15 minutes of the first half, and the Fighting Irish finished with a 29.0 field goal percentage on the night.

“That was varsity versus the JV tonight. We were in JV, the varsity toyed with us tonight,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “The sky’s the limit for them. They’re men, they’re physical and they guard you.”

The defense’s performance bode time for the offense to finally wake up, and when it finally did, it was a sight to behold.

Over the final five minutes before the break, the Terps scored 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field, the only miss being Wiggins’ three-pointer before the mesmerizing slam. Ayala scored seven in less than 90 seconds, including the team’s first triple to take the lid off the rim from beyond the arc.

Notre Dame kicked off the second-half scoring to cut the deficit to 10, but Maryland’s energy carried through the break. The Terps immediately responded with an 8-0 run to extend their lead to 18 points, and it stayed in double-digits the rest of the way.

Cowan, who was held to just two points through 20 minutes —his lowest number of the season — finally broke out, scoring seven after halftime, second only to Smith’s eight. And Ayala’s strong play continued, as he scored five on 2-of-4 shooting after the break.

Though Wiggins’ 3-of-11 shooting performance from the field wasn’t pretty, he rebounded from a brutal start and came up huge in the biggest spots to push Maryland ahead for good. When it was all said and done, he still finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and three vicious blocks, getting it done on both ends of the court.

Three things to know

1. It took Maryland a while to get going from three. The Terps finished shooting 27.6 percent from beyond the arc, which left a lot to be desired. But after the 0-of-10 start, the shots finally started to fall. Over the final 24 minutes of the game, Maryland went 8-of-19 from deep, and Wiggins and Ayala went a combined 4-of-8.

2. Jalen Smith dominated inside. Despite matching up against 6’11 senior center Juwan Durham, Smith got it done in the post against the Irish. He scored 15 points — including a 2-of-3 night on three-pointers — and added a career-high 16 rebounds and tied his career-high with five blocks. Smith now has five double-doubles on the year, already matching his total from the 2018-19 season.

“I think he takes it a lot more serious [compared to last year],” junior wing Darryl Morsell said. “He takes scouting reports a lot more serious. Practice, everything he takes serious. He’s confident, and he’s gaining confidence from his experiences.”

3. John Mooney was a force to be reckoned with. While Durham was mainly held in check, the same couldn’t be said for Mooney. The Terps put arguably their best defender, Morsell, on the 6’9, 245-pound senior to start, and Mooney responded by scoring five points in the first four minutes. On the night, he finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds.

“He’s a terrific player,” Smith said. “He’s a hard box-out, he hits a lot of contested threes. He does what great players do, and I believe he’s one of them.”