After the final buzzer sounded, the No. 10-seed Maryland men’s basketball team erupted into cheers as it ran off the court after upsetting No. 7-seed Connecticut. As the players raced into the locker room, head coach Mark Turgeon was in the tunnel there to high-five every player on his roster cheering right along with them.
The Terps entered Saturday's defensive battle against UConn as the underdogs. On top of being the lower-seeded team, 25 out of 26 basketball experts selected the Huskies to emerge victorious. Former Duke center Jay Bilas was the sole expert analyst out of that group to believe in the Terps.
However, despite the odds not being in their favor, the Terps defeated UConn, 63-54 and will now play in the second round of the tournament for the second consecutive NCAA Tournament trip, facing No. 2 seed Alabama on Monday night.
“Did it put a chip on our guys’ shoulders? It probably did. Absolutely,” Turgeon said after the win. “We talked about it last night.”
Maryland exploded early on the offensive end and continued to play with tough defense to hold UConn guard James Bouknight to shoot just 6-for-16 from the field in order to secure the victory Saturday night.
Overcoming doubt is nothing new for this Maryland team. The Terps finished tied for eighth in the conference standings, but before the season, they were projected to finish 11th.
Before the coronavirus pandemic cut the 2019-20 season short, the Terps won a portion of the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time in program history. This year has been a different story following the departures of star players Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith, with the Terps’ roster lacking a true point guard or center.
Turgeon described his team as being locked in for the NCAA Tournament, but he also knows that if the Terps had won their final two games against Northwestern and Penn State, which were both heartbreakingly close, they would have finished in sixth place in the Big Ten standings, six places higher than was expected of them this season.
“So, yeah, is there a little bit of a chip? Absolutely. But we’re also just so thrilled to be here. We’re just trying to enjoy the moments because it got taken away last year,” Turgeon said after the UConn victory. “We just talked about how fortunate we are to be playing and a lot of people would love to be in our shoes. So let’s make the most of it.”
The last time Maryland found itself in this position, taking on a higher seed in the second round, the outcome was not what the Terps had hoped for. As the No. 6-seed during the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the Terps fell 69-67 to No. 3-seed LSU on a buzzer beater after mounting a second half comeback.
With a minute to go, the game was locked at 64. LSU guard Skyler Mays hit a three to take the lead, but Maryland forward Jalen Smith tied the game up again with a triple of his own. After the Tigers called a timeout, Tremont Waters sank a layup in the paint as the seconds winded down. Just like that, Maryland’s season ended and there was a locker room full of tears.
Junior guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, along with senior guards Darryl Morsell and Reese Mona were part of that team.
“I think [that game is] something that we’ll all remember. But this year is a little bit different. We have a different team,” Morsell said. “We just trying to focus on Alabama and we’re not thinking about what happened two years ago. It’s nothing that we could really change about that. We just try and get better every day.”
Against the Huskies on Saturday night, Ayala played a huge role in the team’s success. The guard had 23 points and shot 8-for-14 (57.1%) from the field and 3-for-5 (60%) from deep. On top of that, Ayala grabbed four boards, had three steals and an assist to help the Terps advance to the Round of 32.
Following the win over UConn, Ayala’s looked back to the beginning of February. On Feb. 8, Maryland fell to Ohio State, 73-65, marking its ninth Big Ten loss of the season and its second consecutive. In that defeat, Maryland committed 12 turnovers that Ohio State turned into 21 points and it struggled to convert on shots from behind the arc.
However, the Terps turned things around from that low point. They won five straight games, and despite dropping the final two regular-season matchups, Maryland advanced to the second round of the Big Ten Tournament after defeating Michigan State, and now the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“A lot of people didn’t really think much of us. A lot of experts didn’t think we’d win this game. A lot of people had us last in the Big Ten,” Ayala said after the win. “...No matter what people, barriers and stuff they try to put on me or my team all year we just been fighting. That’s been our motto, to just keep fighting.”
In a season where Maryland has had to put in the extra work to get the results it wants, the team enters this next game with the same mindset it has had all season — keep on fighting.
With this chip on their shoulder that comes from being the underdogs and having to scrap their way to get to this point, the Terps will look to use that as motivation to help them advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2016.