- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2021

Mark Turgeon was tired of seeing Aaron Wiggins play into Michigan State’s hands.

The Maryland basketball coach noticed how the Spartans closed down immediately on his junior guard, forcing Wiggins into contested long-range shots that kept clanking out in the first half of Thursday’s Big Ten tournament game. So Turgeon offered Wiggins a bit of advice.

“Would you just start ripping and driving it, please?” Turgeon asked Wiggins.

So that’s what Wiggins did. Instead of pulling up for another jumper when Wiggins received Eric Ayala’s pass late in the first half, Wiggins blew past two Michigan State defenders, leaped up and threw down a two-hand jam.

The dunk provided his team with a two-point lead when they had once trailed by as many as 12, and the play jumpstarted Wiggins’ performance. On the back of Wiggins and Ayala, No. 8-seed Maryland picked up its first win at the Big Ten tournament since 2016, dispatching No. 9-seed Michigan State, 68-57.

“When they’re forcing you off the three-point line and forcing you away from your jump shots, you gotta stay aggressive and get to the basket,” Wiggins said. “I was able to get to the basket, get a couple open looks, get to the free-throw line and get going.”

Maryland needed plays like Wiggins’ to invigorate the squad. After two straight losses to finish the regular season — coming against Northwestern and Penn State — spoiled what had been a five-game winning streak, Turgeon admitted he worried about how his team would respond Thursday.

And then Michigan State came out well to begin the second-round matchup, climbing to a 12-point advantage midway through the opening frame.

But Ayala soon upped his aggressiveness — leading to his team-high 21 points. The junior guard kept slashing his way to the rim, and he kept drawing foul calls. It was a similar strategy to the last time the Terrapins faced the Spartans, when they hit 23 of 24 free throws in that late February win.

Ayala scored all 13 of his opening-frame points on a 23-7 stretch to end the half, with eight of those coming from the charity stripe. And Ayala knocked down a 3-pointer as the first-half buzzer sounded, giving Maryland a four-point lead heading into the break. Jairus Hamilton hit a pair of treys in the first half and Hakim Hart added another, benefits from the inside-out action brought on by driving the lane.

“We found ways just to attack and make the defense collapse, and then kick out to get open shots,” Hamilton said. “It helped us get a rhythm going very early on when we were struggling.”

Thirty of the Terrapins’ 34 first-half points came from the free-throw line or beyond the arc — helping recover from a 31.8% shooting clip from the floor. Maryland opened the second half with eight straight points, too, including a spin and finish at the rim from Wiggins as part of his 19 points.

Michigan State, meanwhile, went ice cold. The Spartans were held without a field goal for just under 12 minutes between the first and second halves, and they missed 16 of 17 shot attempts in a 16:38 span — a complete reversal from their 10-for-15 start.

And Maryland put in work on the offensive glass in the second half, pulling in nine offensive boards and converting those into 12 second-chance points. There was Wiggins’ and-1. Ayala added a tip-in, and Hart put back a miss.

“It’s hard for us,” Turgeon said, referencing Maryland’s size disadvantage down low. “When we can get points like that, that really helps things.”

At one point this season, the Terrapins sat with a 4-9 conference record, in danger of spiraling out of contention. They’ve shown resilience this year, though, an ability to turn around their fortunes. Maryland worked its way to a No. 8 seed in the tournament on the back of a 5-2 finish to the regular season.

But those two losses to close the campaign gave the Terrapins another hurdle to overcome. And they proved themselves capable again Thursday, all-but locking a place in the NCAA tournament while securing a meeting with top-seeded Michigan on Friday in the conference tournament.

“Just a really good win for us,” Turgeon said. “A shot in the arm.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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