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With Eric Ayala out, Serrel Smith Jr. stepped up for Maryland basketball vs. Ohio State

The freshman guard dropped 14 points off the bench in the win.

Maryland basketball Serrel Smith Jr. vs. Ohio State Lila Bromberg / Testudo Times

Maryland men’s basketball took care of business Saturday afternoon, beating Ohio State by 10 after allowing a 16-point second-half lead get whittled down to two.

Both teams would end the game without their starting point guards. C.J. Jackson missed the entire game for Ohio State, and Maryland’s Eric Ayala played just 10 minutes before succumbing to an illness and missing the rest of the contest.

In Ayala’s absence, the remaining guards stepped up for the Terps. Aaron Wiggins continued to make an impact offensively, Darryl Morsell hit double-digit scoring while flying around defensively, and Anthony Cowan Jr. pushed the pace and went back to playing point. But the most direct impact of Ayala’s absence meant more playing time for Serrel Smith Jr., and the freshman delivered. He finished tied for second on the team in scoring with a career-high 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting in 19 minutes.

“Every second I’m on the court, I try to keep myself confident, keep myself up,” Smith Jr. said after the game. “It was a missing spot that had to be filled. Coach [Mark Turgeon] came in and said Eric wasn’t feeling well, so it was about my time to step up and play that role.”

Ayala started the game as usual, but didn’t last long playing through his illness. He missed a three and grabbed one rebound before being subbed out at the first media timeout. Wiggins and Smith Jr. entered the game on the other side of the break and each immediately made an impact. Wiggins knocked down a triple, and Smith Jr. set up Cowan for another to give Maryland its first lead at 10-9.

Smith Jr. would get his first points a few minutes later on a pull-up jumper before heading back to the bench as Ayala gave it another go. Ayala added another rebound and an assist to his stat line before being shut down for the day. He’d stay in the training room after the half. The last thing Ayala would see from the bench was Smith Jr. scoring Maryland’s final six points of the half to give the Terps a 33-28 advantage at the break. He got there on a free throw, a three and a layup.

“That’s what we have—a next-man-up mentality,” Cowan said. “Serrel’s been doing great in practice, so he was ready for the moment. I’m really happy for him.”

With the team aware that Ayala was unlikely to return, Smith Jr. kept looking for his shot in the second half. He stepped up and applied more pressure defensively as well, looking to keep his man scoreless in accordance with a challenge from Turgeon.

Smith Jr. checked in after six minutes had gone by in the half and immediately entered double figures on a jumper. He’d add four more points from the free-throw line before he was done, with three of those coming after he was fouled going up for a triple.

“[Smith Jr.] has done a really good job,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “ Part of that, I think, is because guys like that understand what they can bring to their team, and they come in and do it really well. ... In some cases, what you need is just guys to come in and and play a role that helps their team.”

The career-high outing from Smith Jr. represents his fourth double-digit output of the season and topped a 13-point outing early in the season against Mount St. Mary’s. He hadn’t scored in double figures since an 11-point outing at Rutgers, but had hit a three in four of Maryland’s last six games entering the contest.

“You tell guys to be ready when their number’s called, and he exemplified that today,” Turgeon said. “I say to people all the time that I wish I could play Serrel more. ... I’m happy for him because he’s one of the first guys in the gym and one of the last guys to leave. So for him to be rewarded in a big game like that and on a big stage is terrific.”

Smith Jr. tallied 19 minutes against Ohio State, the most he’s played since he logged 20 against Illinois on Jan. 26. He’s played more than 10 minutes in just two of the six games since. However, if you ask him, it’s never a question of how many minutes he plays, just what he does in them.

“I don’t really worry [about minutes],” Smith Jr. said. “I just wait till he calls my name and try to always stay ready.”