The Maryland junior ensured his third trip to the event turned out a little bit better.
Galvanized by an enticing zone defense, Hayes torched N.C. State for a career-high 21 points as the seventh-seeded Terrapins squeezed past the 10th-seeded Wolfpack 74-69 at Georgia Dome to maintain their NCAA tournament hopes and move into the conference quarterfinals.
Greivis Vasquez had 17 points and 10 assists for Maryland (19-12), which erased a 13-point deficit in the first half and will meet second-seeded Wake Forest (24-5) on Friday night.
“We’re playing for Sunday,” Vasquez said. “We’re on a mission. We knew if we won the game we were going to have a chance to play Wake Forest. We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied.”
The postseason implications could not have been clearer for the Terps, who believed they had a compelling-enough resume to warrant inclusion in the 65-team NCAA field - assuming they could produce a respectable showing in the conference tournament.
That started with beating N.C. State, the sort of bottom-half-of-the-league team the Terps dispatched for much of the season before losing their regular-season finale at Virginia.
It was the exuberant Vasquez who annoyed the Wolfpack (16-14) and their fans earlier this month in the teams’ only previous meeting. The Venezuelan hit an inconsequential 3-pointer at the buzzer of a Maryland victory, earning the derision of the crowd.
Little did N.C. State know it would be Vasquez’s polar opposite who would doom them in Round Two.
Hayes devoured the Wolfpack’s unwise defense of choice, connecting on three 3-pointers in the first half to help bail Maryland out of an early 21-8 hole.
At that stage, it seemed another first-round flameout was likely for the Terps. Maryland had bombed on the tournament’s first day in three of the last four years, including the last two seasons.
“It’s definitely in the back of your mind,” Hayes said. “We’re down early, and you’re like, ‘Man, we’re playing like this again, like we did the last two years.’ But we’re a different team this year, and we knew we could fight back and get into the game and we’d be fine.”
Hayes’ gumption certainly helped. The junior enjoyed one of his best days in a season where he has been shuffled from the starting five to de facto sixth man. Though Hayes is the first man off the bench, he typically approaches at least 30 minutes.
Vasquez, though he didn’t annoy N.C. State in quite the same way, was still a nuisance. He consistently penetrated the lane, setting up passes to Hayes while drawing away a defender from the perimeter.
“I wanted to be aggressive coming in,” Hayes said. “When I knocked one down, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my shot. Greivis did a great job of hitting me when I was open, and I was fortunate to knock them down.”
Vasquez also made a 3-pointer with 2:59 remaining to stretch Maryland’s meager lead to 66-62. Yet it was Hayes who closed out the Wolfpack, making five straight free throws to bump the margin to 71-62 with a minute remaining.
It provided symmetry to the night - Hayes bailing out Maryland early, then closing out the Wolfpack late.
“I’m not sure we ever recover from the way we started if Eric doesn’t come into the game,” coach Gary Williams said. “Greivis found him a couple times, but he still had to hit those shots.”
Hayes’ late free throw flurry ensured there wouldn’t be another flat-out flop to close the season, the sort Maryland endured with its come-from-ahead loss to Boston College in last year’s ACC tournament.
Instead, the Terps have a chance to do something better - prove their postseason worthiness against a top-10 opponent.
“It’s a huge statement game,” guard Cliff Tucker said. “We know we probably should have beaten them the last time. We just have to come here and play hard. We know we probably have to get this one if we want to have a chance to make the NCAA tournament.”