The Terps achieved a couple of defensive stops, briefly showing some energy that could have marked the first signs of a fast run. But tonight, coach Mark Turgeon said: “We didn’t look like us.” And two players linked to being key scorers certainly didn’t look like themselves either.
Second-year guard Eric Ayala missed three shots in just over a minute when Maryland had that brief promise. The Hawkeyes responded with a score explosion and maintained firm control in a 67-49 loss.
Ayala finished with two points in shots of 0 by 6, with one assist and four turnovers. Classmate Aaron Wiggins fought even more. In Maryland’s first possession, Wiggins dribbled out of bounds, the first of his three turnovers. He only played 17 minutes after encountering foul problems. Wiggins missed all four field goal attempts and remained goalless for the first time in his university career.
“We have some guys who are really good players who just need to act like they’re really good players and play like that,” Turgeon said after the game. “And we didn’t do it tonight.”
The loss in Iowa City expanded some of Maryland’s offensive concerns, particularly from the three-point range and for these two second-year students. In all three losses, the Terps shot 33 percent or worse. Seton Hall and Iowa kept Maryland below 50 points.
Since the Terps (13-3, 3-2 Big Ten) hope to solve the problems, they will have to do it away from home. The clash against Iowa was the first in a five-game run that includes four on the road, with the next test Tuesday in Wisconsin (10-6, 3-2) after a quick change. Home teams have won 87 percent of Big Ten games this season.
Maryland’s occasional problems, Friday night and at other times, are not exclusively from Ayala and Wiggins. Those two have still contributed while reverting their roles last season. Wiggins has started all games and averaged 10.3 points. Ayala now leaves the bench and scored 9.4 points per game, the fourth most on the team and just behind Wiggins. Wiggins has reached double figures in 10 of 16 games, drawing his total of 15 points in his career three times.
Both played well in the Maryland freshman team a year ago, helping the Terps reach the second round of the NCAA tournament, and both entered this season about to take a leap. Wiggins was seen as a possible breaking star, and maybe even someone who could consider an early exit for the NBA if he played at a high level.
“It’s much harder for these children,” said Turgeon. “When you’re a freshman, you often don’t know anything better. And suddenly, you know what’s going on.”
Both sophomore students have shown their best physique with athletic mates, which include Wiggins featured reel stroke after having followed his triple failed last month against Notre Dame. Even that day, when the feat of Wiggins was named the best play of the night on “SportsCenter” the players could not decide whose dump was more impressive because Ayala also had an ingenious one.
But then there is the three-point shot, the area in which none of the players have found their rhythm. The couple led the team as freshmen. Wiggins shot 41.3 percent, and Ayala, whose shooting insight was a pleasant surprise, made 40.6 percent. The offensive went through Bruno Fernando, so the Maryland shooters benefited from how the opponents grouped him and left a player open on the perimeter. Ayala said that helped him find a rhythm.
Almost three months after his second season, Ayala has shot 24.7 percent of three and Wiggins has done 28.8 percent. Both have taken more than 70 shots from behind the goal, and both have had a slightly lower performance, even compared to their modest season averages in January. In the last two games, Turgeon said, Wiggins has let his shooting problems affect the rest of his game, which had not been the case before.
“It has been a concern of mine all year,” Turgeon said of Wiggins’ struggles. “He is a good player and he is a good shooter.” I started saying around Christmas, after we lost [at] Seton Hall, it’s my job to give the kids confidence, and I’m trying with him. You just have to believe in yourself. I know we believe in him.
As a team, the Terps have shot 30.6 percent from a three-point range, a decrease of 34.9 percent last season. The 41.4 percent of Maryland shots from the field is worse in the Big Ten. The team’s three-point shooting ranks 12th out of 14 schools. Instead, the Terps have relied on their consistently strong defense to win games, including their great victory last week over the then No. 11 State of Ohio.
Ayala had what Turgeon called his best practice of the season on Sunday. Ayala said the Iowa game, along with the other two defeats, gave him the opportunity to “reevaluate” himself, adding that he hoped to prove he is a different player.
Both forward Jalen Smith and guard Darryl Morsell have made threesomes when necessary. Freshman Donta Smith has become a reliable starter. Senior Anthony Cowan Jr., the team’s top scorer, can meet at critical moments. Therefore, Maryland does not necessarily need Wiggins and Ayala to be exceptional. They just need to play at their capacity, as they did last year. The two are roommates and motivate each other. Ayala said they have talked about how they are going to go through this together, how they are going to get out of their chaos.
“We have been able to win 13 games without throwing the ball as well as we usually do,” said Ayala. “So I imagine when we shot it …”
Ayala went off, but what I was imagining was obvious. If Wiggins and Ayala can hit shots, and as long as others maintain their shape, Maryland increases their chances of winning important games, which are ahead. Wiggins and Ayala understand their roles and their importance. Then, when asked to finish his thought about what will happen when the two leave his routine, Ayala said: “Once we start clicking, it will be fun.”
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