INDIANAPOLIS — Eric Ayala glanced at the stands in Lucas Oil Stadium. He had been the villain most of the day, routinely crashing into the bodies of Michigan State defenders amid a chorus of whistles and jeers.
He had popped up once more early in the second half, scraping up a loose offensive rebound. Ayala then pump-faked, driving his shoulder into forward Joey Hauser’s midsection. Then came the delicate finish, a flicked effort that caromed off the backboard and into the net.
The boos came swarming once more. They didn’t matter, though. Ayala calmly sank the subsequent free throw.
It was a moment that encapsulated so much of what Ayala brings to Maryland men’s basketball. He’s a steadying presence, willing to take the tough shot late in the shot clock or drive into the paint and finish through contact. And it was that willingness to put himself about that carried the Terps through a torrid opening 10 minutes en route to a first Big Ten tournament win since 2016.
“Eric just missed a couple ones early he thought he was gonna make and you’re wondering ‘Is this kid gonna get going,’” Turgeon said. “He got going.”
Heading into Thursday’s matchup, the Spartans were well-aware of Ayala’s threat at the charity stripe. He sank all 13 of his free throw attempts the last time both sides matched up against each other, helping push Turgeon’s squad to an 18-point victory on Feb. 28.
And Michigan State keyed in on the Wilmington, Delaware, native’s offensive repertoire early. Guards Aaron Henry and Rocket Watts harassed Ayala on the perimeter throughout the opening period. The paint, marshaled by bouncy forwards Malik Hall and Julius Marble, proved similarly impenetrable.
All this amounted to an early 12-point deficit for the Terps, the type of disadvantage that seemed likely to swell given Maryland’s end-of-season toils.
“Was I worried? Yeah, after coming off two losses, yeah I was worried,” Turgeon said. “We haven’t done that a lot this year, when we’re not playing great just to really turn it on. We could do it [with] last year’s team but this year’s team hadn’t been able to do it.”
Ayala continued plugging away, though. Soon enough, he was rewarded, piercing through the Spartans defense to scoop a layup in. It was a preview of what was to come for Ayala throughout the opening frame.
A little over a minute later, Ayala skipped into the lane once more, this time bumping into Michigan State guard Joshua Langford to draw a foul. He stepped to the line and calmly netted two points.
He did it again in the five-minute mark, thrashing into Hauser to get the call. The Spartans’ lead had shrunk to just six.
Ayala got the line four more times in the frame, using his craft and guile to force defenders into awkward positions. As his influence grew, so too did the Terps, who took the lead courtesy of a Hakim Hart triple with 3:15 left in the first half.
“It’s just about taking every punch and being able to punch back,” guard Aaron Wiggins said. “Thing changed and we were able to finish it off.”
And Ayala flashed in the final moments of the first half. With Langford on him and the clock winding down, Ayala moved the ball from right to left, then left to right, before staggering his steps. With Langford dazed, Ayala rose and fired, splashing from deep to put Turgeon’s squad up four at half.
Largely fueled by Ayala’s aggression, Maryland held a slight lead. It would soon swell in the second frame. Ayala, with his furious dashes to the rack, had cracked the code. Soon, it was Wiggins who sprinted through the lane, punishing a weakened Spartans defensive core.
The Terps’ lead grew to as large as 19 in the second, showing no signs of the team that struggled to find the basket just an hour or so before. And as Maryland rolled, Ayala stood on the sideline. He had propelled his team to a victory in the Big Ten tournament, a victory that seemed all the more unlikely during that woeful first 10 minutes.
“We don’t want to go home,” forward Jairus Hamilton said. “We want to be playing, we want to play this March, so… we came out there, we competed and we played our best basketball and thankfully, we came out with the W.”