With three minutes to play, Maryland men’s basketball guard Eric Ayala received a pass on the wing and elevated for an open three. In the first half, uncontested shots like these were falling; but in the second, the Terps’ shooting regressed to the struggles they’ve incurred all season.
So while Ayala’s shot was mid-flight, guard Aaron Wiggins didn’t assume the ball was on its way to the bottom of the net. Instead, the sophomore sprinted in from the opposite wing, caught the ricochet and threw down a putback slam to continue Maryland’s interior dominance in the second half.
As the No. 12 Terps figured out which offensive approach would be most effective in each half, their defense repeatedly rose to the occasion, holding Ohio State to a season-low 31.3 percent shooting during the 67-55 win on Tuesday night in their first ranked game of this season.
“You really can’t control hitting shots sometimes — sometimes, [you’re] just off. But you can control your effort, your energy, how much you talk and a lot of stuff defensively,” guard Darryl Morsell said. “We just try to continue to be the best defensive team that we can be every day.”
Maryland’s offense sputtered to seven consecutive scoreless possessions to start the game, missing five shots and committing three turnovers — including one after an offensive rebound. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes jumped out to an early 8-0 lead before Ayala started the scoring with a free throw.
With the offense in an early rut for a second consecutive conference home game, forward Jalen Smith received a pass on the perimeter and didn’t hesitate in rising for the shot.
Smith, who shot 7-for-25 from deep before the new year, ignited the offense against Indiana on Saturday with back-to-back threes. Against Ohio State (11-4, 1-3 Big Ten), Smith’s triple was the first of a shooting display unlike anything coach Mark Turgeon’s team had experienced in 15 games this season.
“[It’s] an enthusiasm thing. Just giving everybody a confidence boost,” Smith said of his shots leading to heightened production. “If you get the ball, and you see a wide-open shot, shoot it.”
The Terps, who entered Tuesday’s contest shooting 30.7 percent from three-point range (ranking No. 284 in the country), converted three straight perimeter shots — as well as a layup from Morsell — to turn their 8-0 deficit into a 15-13 lead.
Buckeyes’ center Kaleb Wesson, who averaged 14.7 points coming into the game, picked up his second personal foul with 5:15 remaining in the first half, forcing Ohio State’s leading scorer to the bench. Both of Wesson’s fouls came after Smith drew an offensive foul while defending the 6-foot-9 center at the post.
Wesson wouldn’t return in the first half, shooting 2-for-8 in the frame for five points. He still finished the contest with 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting but was beleaguered by foul trouble throughout.
“His foul trouble was an issue. … He’s a big body, he’s an easy target for some of those fouls,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “[Jalen] Smith’s length did bother him.”
Maryland’s uncharacteristically lethal perimeter shooting persisted for the remainder of the half, as the Terps made seven threes — a season-high in a half — on 11 attempts to stake a 28-22 lead at halftime.
“I wasn’t surprised because we had been shooting the ball really well in practices and scrimmages,” Turgeon said. “As a coach, when you’ve been doing it as long as I have, you always know it starts in practice and eventually gets to the game.”
The three-point shooting regressed for the home team in the second period, but Maryland leaned on its defense and found other ways to score, as it has needed to do all season to go 12-2 despite the three-point shot not falling consistently.
After hitting just one two-point field goal in the first half, the Terps finished 12-for-19 from inside the arc in the second half.
Guard Anthony Cowan became more aggressive driving to the rim, the Terps took advantage of transition opportunities — including an emphatic dunk from Wiggins after a forced turnover — and they made 12 free throws after intermission.
“We [were] able to get into the lane, make plays for each other and also finish,” said Cowan, who finished with a game-high 20 points — including 15 in the second half. “And that really carried it out for the rest of the game.”
Wiggins’ putback dunk and an alley-oop to Smith capped off the interior-focused performance in the second half, which included 22 points in the paint.
Maryland’s defense, meanwhile, held a second-consecutive conference opponent under 60 points — this time, it was Ohio State mustering a season-worst 55 points. Turgeon hopes this team will continue to grow offensively, but his squad knows that defense can carry them a long way.
“We kind of hang our hat on the defensive end. If anything’s not working for us, we know we can guard and stop teams,” Ayala said. “The ball [will] eventually fall in.”