With just under two minutes to go in the first half against Purdue Saturday, sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins caught a pass on the left wing and dribbled towards the top of the key.
His defender, Big Ten all-defense guard Nojel Eastern, reached for the steal and Wiggins saw his opportunity open up. The middle of the paint was vacated and he hit it with a vengeance after a spin move for another highlight-reel dunk, slamming a right-handed tomahawk down with authority.
“Eastern was guarding me and he gambled,” Wiggins said. “I just went down the lane and saw nobody was gonna step over. So I just went up and dunked it.”
When Wiggins returned to ground level after his ascent to the rim, he turned towards the Terps bench and flexed, almost as if to say, “I’m back.”
For the first 16 games of his second season in College Park, Wiggins had struggled to make the same impact he did in his debut campaign. He started each time out and was seeing an abundance of minutes, but the production just wasn’t there.
Through the Iowa game on Jan. 10, Wiggins was averaging 10.3 points on 35 percent shooting from the field and 28.9 percent from beyond the arc while taking the second-most shots on the team. As a freshman, he shined with a 41.3 three-point percentage, but he was miles away from that type of efficiency a year later, even though his scoring average was up over two points with a big increase in minutes.
And against the Hawkeyes, he turned in the first scoreless outing of his collegiate career. The Terps wound up losing that game 67-49, their worst loss of the season, prompting head coach Mark Turgeon to make a lineup change which he had already been pondering beforehand.
“Before we played [Iowa], I grabbed [Wiggins and Eric Ayala] and said ‘I don’t care who starts — one of you’s gotta start, one’s gotta come off the bench. I think we should flip it.’ And they didn’t do it.” Turgeon said. “And then finally, I said, ‘Ok, you don’t have a choice. We’re going to flip this.’”
Ayala entered the starting five against Wisconsin the following Tuesday, sending Wiggins to the pine to come off the bench. Wiggins had a resurgent performance, finishing with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting while splitting his six three-point attempts.
Wiggins’ biggest shot of the game came with just over nine minutes remaining. He received a pass from Anthony Cowan Jr. well beyond the three-point arc but never hesitated, catching and shooting instantly to give the Terps a 46-41 edge — their largest lead of the game. And while they ultimately lost late, Wiggins’ outing gave the team a chance to win.
Just a few days later against the Boilermakers, Wiggins had another solid showing. A few late misses in the waning moments skewed his final stat line, but the sophomore still turned in a 12-point effort that included a 4-of-9 afternoon from the field, hitting a pair of first-half threes to go along with seven rebounds and a steal.
“It’s great when he’s making shots. He made two threes in the first half and missed a couple in the second half, but he got good looks,” Turgeon said. “And then because he’s playing better offensively, his defense and rebounding is back to where it needs to be for us to be successful.”
A sample size of just two games is small, but there seems to be a different air surrounding Wiggins. Perhaps it was the switch to a role off the bench, or maybe it was a good shooter finally breaking out of a prolonged slump.
In any case, over his last two outings, Wiggins has 25 points — second on the team only to Jalen Smith — on 8-of-17 shooting, going 5-of-12 from beyond the arc with 12 rebounds and two steals. Time will tell if he can keep this up through the meat of conference play, but Wiggins’ recent stretch of play is certainly an encouraging sign.
“I told myself, ‘I gotta start shooting more often and getting my shots up so that I’m comfortable and I’m confident shooting,’” Wiggins said. “Seeing some fall, I’m starting to get back into my groove, feel a little bit better. I’m ready to play.”
While there were outside concerns about whether Wiggins would be able to break through, especially with the team struggling a bit as of late, his teammates weren’t concerned.
“Throughout the whole season, I was never worried about Aaron, because I know Aaron,” Smith said. “He always pops on when you need him. So just to see him get his groove back right now, it’s just amazing.”
Going forward, Wiggins isn’t placing a big emphasis on his spot in the lineup. Whether he reenters the starting five or comes off the bench, he just wants the team to succeed.
“I just want to win, and if that’s what Coach thinks is best for our team, I’m willing to do it,” Wiggins said. “[I’ll] just continue to shoot, stay comfortable, stay confident. My coaches believe in me, my teammates believe in me. We all push each other to keep shooting.”