Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics
The pair was silenced through 20 minutes, but the sophomores came up big when the Terps needed.
ORLANDO, Fla. — In a close battle against Temple late, No. 5 Maryland men’s basketball needed help. Anthony Cowan Jr. had made the difference for the Terps all day long, but they were still in danger of dropping their first game of the season in the Orlando Invitational.
Sophomores Jalen Smith and Eric Ayala, normally big sources of offense for the team, had just six points at halftime — two for Smith, four for Ayala — with the team down 34-29.
But after the break, they broke out as Maryland regained control and played at a much higher level, combining for 19 points on 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc en route to a 76-69 victory over the Owls.
With the Terps down 60-59 with four minutes to play, Cowan started to drive and suddenly jumped, gunning a pass across the width of the court to the opposite corner. The ball found Smith, who calmly set his feet before launching up a three-pointer.
Entering Thursday’s game, the big man couldn’t buy a basket from beyond the arc. He entered 0-of-9 on threes through five games, and he missed his two first-half attempts against the Owls.
He finally broke through with under 16 minutes in the game, nailing a triple from the right side of the three-point line. Head coach Mark Turgeon wasn’t impressed with Smith’s performance at the break and delivered a powerful message to help him break through.
“I just challenged him. I said, ‘You’re one of our best players. You got to play better. You got to get an offensive rebound, you got to do something — block a shot, do something.’” Turgeon told media after the game.
So when Smith caught Cowan’s pass, he just did what he was told all season long to that point. He jumped, fired a shot and stared at the ball as it rattled through the bottom of the net to retake the lead for Maryland.
“It felt amazing, because at practice, I pretty much knock down every three I shoot,” Smith said. “So just seeing my first few go in during the game gave me a lot of confidence. … Now it’s time to improve and keep shooting.”
Even with Smith’s triple, the Terps weren’t out of the clear just yet. There were still four minutes to play and the Owls were relentless all day.
Following a Darryl Morsell block, Maryland held a 67-64 lead with less than 90 seconds left when Cowan caught a pass on the left wing. He fed Smith — who was posting up his defender — before the sophomore forward threw a two-handed rocket to Ayala precisely where Smith had hit his first three.
Ayala leaped and shot over a closing Quinton Rose — all 6’8 of him — extending the Terps’ lead to six points with just over a minute remaining. However, the deficit was cut right back to three after a Temple triple 20 seconds later.
That gave Maryland the ball with a chance to run the clock down to about 20. A basket would essentially clinch a victory, while a miss would give Temple a puncher’s chance at tying things up.
Given Cowan’s incredible performance — he was now up to a career-high 28 points — everyone in the gym expected him to handle that crucial possession. However, Turgeon decided to throw a curveball.
“Anthony was mad at me, because [he] wanted the ball and I kind of waved [him] out,” Turgeon said. “I think they would have doubled Anthony more, and we would’ve had to make another play. I just felt [it], my gut just kind of went with Eric.”
Instead of Cowan, it was Ayala who took the ball out. And after crossing mid court and passing out of a double team, it was Ayala who held the ball on the Orlando Invitational logo with 44 seconds left.
He bode his time, not dribbling for what felt like forever before making his move with six remaining on the shot clock. Smith came up to set a screen, and Ayala drove right of Nate Pierre-Louis and attacked the basket. He feigned a pass to Aaron Wiggins in the corner to fake out a defender before delivering the game-sealing layup with 26 ticks left.
“We wanted to just get one shot to bring the clock down,” Ayala said. “I do pick-and-roll screens pretty much every day, and it just happened to be with a couple seconds on the clock. Coach trusted me, my teammates trusted me, and I just made the play.”
Maryland hit its free throws the rest of the way to ensure it wouldn’t be upset as Duke had been two days before, and it walked away from the fight without a blemish on its record.
And while Cowan’s career-high performance kept Maryland within striking distance throughout the game, the team wouldn’t have been able to secure the win without the added boost from Smith and Ayala.
Maryland has still yet to play a complete, 40-minute game, a worrisome sight — though the season is just six games old thus far. But this year’s group has more experience than the 2018-19 Terps, and they may prove to have a knack for winning close battles.
“We’ve been in these games,” Ayala said. “I just started to think about the tournament when we were playing against Belmont and how we had to stick that out, and it made it easier for me.”