Despite looking like it had found its groove with the arrival of March, Maryland men’s basketball saw some of its same struggles from earlier this season return in a 60-55 loss against Northwestern Wednesday.
The Terps had 15 turnovers, allowed eight made three-pointers in the first half and got not help from their bench in an all-around sloppy loss.
Even though Maryland may be safe on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, a further collapse at the end of the season would serve as a gut punch for a team that fought so hard to put together a five-game conference win streak.
Here are my three takeaways from the Terps’ loss.
Maryland struggled defending beyond the arc early
After allowing opponents to shoot just 31.3% from deep over their last five games and 30.5% over their last 10, the Terps gave up three-point makes at a rate of 42.1% in the first half Wednesday.
Northwestern made just two field goals in the first half that weren’t three-pointers, shooting a whopping 8-for-19 through 20 minutes.
“Credit to [Northwestern],” senior forward Darryl Morsell said. “They played with a lot of confidence, they fought through adversity and every time we hit them, they had an answer for us.”
The Maryland defense has been something to watch as of late, with the ability to force opponents to attempt threes at a rate of 45.7%, helping limit chances in the paint.
That effort is beneficial when teams struggle to convert, but guarding a squad hot from beyond the arc starts a shooting battle back-and-forth that takes away from the offensive game plan.
Northwestern continued its success into the second half, shooting 2-for-4 from three in the first 3:26, but began to fall off after that, missing its final six attempts from deep.
Even though the Terps held sharpshooter Miller Kopp to a 0-for-11 performance, including an 0-for-8 mark from deep, Boo Buie and Chase Audige combined to shoot 7-for-12 from long range and were not keyed-in on quickly enough.
“To me, this game is a slot from the neck-up,” head coach Mark Turgeon said of the team’s mental struggles. “There’s a lot, lot to be said about the neck-up, and we just weren’t worth a flip from the neck-up, all game.”
The Terps got no help from their bench
While Maryland has gone the bulk of this season using a core group of seven or eight players, that limited depth failed to contribute offensively Wednesday night.
Turgeon and his staff sent out the small-ball lineup of Eric Ayala, Hakim Hart, Aaron Wiggins, Morsell and Donta Scott against the Wildcats, which did open the door to common mismatches the Terps had been thriving on.
Rotational help from Reese Mona, Jairus Hamilton and Galin Smith was all that Maryland had come off the bench, but there was no spark. The trio combined to shoot 0-for-1 and added three rebounds, three turnovers and four fouls across 29 minutes on the floor.
“We had two guys play well, but I’m not going to mention names,” Turgeon said. “The rest of us weren’t very good. ... We got back to our inconsistencies and we weren’t a very good team. We were back to that team tonight.”
Maryland was able to use 16 points off the bench in its Feb. 18 matchup against Nebraska to pull out a 78-71 victory, but there have been struggles since. The Terps tallied just six bench points in their road win over Rutgers, followed by 10 points against Michigan State last Sunday.
While it is clear that Maryland’s core group of guys includes Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell and Scott, the Terps need to find a way to generate production off the bench in order to be successful.
“Just preparation,” Wiggins said was the struggle. “In terms of being locked in, we gotta do a better job of making sure we’re ready when the ball goes up.”
Eric Ayala struggled for the first time in awhile
One of the uncharacteristic struggles for Maryland Wednesday night was at the hands of Ayala, who has led the Terps in scoring throughout this season.
Ayala had just five points, four rebounds and three assists in 37 minutes on Wednesday night on a shooting mark of 2-for-12 from the field, including going 1-for-6 from long-range.
Despite his struggles through the evening, it was Ayala who was given a three-point shot to give Maryland a lead with 15 seconds remaining, but he failed to do so.
Wednesday’s matchup against Northwestern marked the first time since Jan. 27 against Wisconsin that Ayala failed to reach double figures scoring, a stretch of eight games where he averaged 17.3 points per game.
While Wiggins continued his prime form with 26 points and Morsell added 14 of his own, the Terps can’t survive on the back of one or two guys.
Wednesday marked just the fourth time this season that Ayala was held to single-digit scoring, something which he has not done is back-to-back games, which bodes well for the outlook of this Maryland team.