COLLEGE PARK — After being blanked in the first half, Fatts Russell found his gear, scoring all of his 18 points in the second half and helping Maryland fight off a five-minute scoreless drought in the game’s final minutes to hang on for their second-straight win Monday night, 67-61, over Penn State.
“I know I had to be aggressive,” said Russell after being held scoreless in his 11:28 on the court in the first half with two fouls. “I just came out there and tried to make some energy plays and tried to be aggressive on the offensive end for myself and others.”
“That presence, his experience was really big for us,” said Terrapins interim head coach Danny Manning of Russell.
Guard Eric Ayala added 13 points off the bench for Maryland (13-14, 5-11 Big Ten) and forward Donta Scott finished with 12.
Ayala played with a taped-up right wrist that he’s been nursing since a Feb. 10 loss to Iowa. Manning said the senior “made plays like we’re used to him making” and expects him to get back to a regular workload fairly soon.
“He made his presence felt right from the get go. Coming off screens really hard, squaring up, being aggressive looking at the basket,” Manning said. “And when he does that, he opens up so many different things for our team.”
“Definitely getting better,” Ayala said. “I found my rhythm probably like a practice or two ago.”
Penn State (11-13, 6-10) was led by guard Sam Sessoms’ 17 points, 13 of which he scored after halftime. Forward John Harrar had 14 points with 13 rebounds, and Nittany Lions leading scorer Jalen Pickett was held to 13 points.
The backbone of the win was Maryland’s defense, specifically the tenacity of guards Ian Martinez and Hakim Hart. Both had four steals, part of 13 Nittany Lion turnovers that led to 18 Terrapin points.
“When those guys have active hands and great anticipation, it leads to easier scoring opportunities for us,” Manning said.
“The focus was just to stick together and ‘little’ the court. Make the court smaller,” Scott said. “Just keep our hands up. Get deflections. And that’s what the guys did today.”
“The game plan for us was just hustle.”
Russell was excited about Martinez’s performance, and also happy for a reprieve from the pressure his teammate gives him in practice.
“He’ll be fouling, tugging me and everything,” Russell said with a smile. “That’s the Ian Martinez I see every day in practice. And I’m glad he’s finally coming out there and showing who is truly is.”
In a lightly-whistled first 10 minutes, the bigs for both teams led the way.
Center Qudus Wahab scored 7 of Maryland’s first 11 points in a quick-scoring 15-9 start, with Russell doing a lot to facilitate movement and find the Georgetown transfer underneath. Those were his only points of the game, as he didn’t take a shot the rest of the way. Harrar kept pace for the Nittany Lions, scoring 6 points on 3-of-5 shooting.
Maryland continued to push the pace with its first threes of the game, courtesy of Julian Reese and Hart. But Penn State always found an answer, with leading scorer Pickett adding his first five points to cut Maryland’s lead to 21-19. That was part of a 5-for-7 stretch of made field goals for Penn State.
This was a matchup of two of the more sluggish offenses in the Big Ten as both teams only make an average of 24 field goals per game, worst in the conference. Both struggled in the final minutes of the first half.
Only four combined baskets were scored in the last four minutes, the final one a Martinez steal-and-score to draw the Terrapins even at the break, 28-28. Adding to the quick and low-scoring session: Only seven combined fouls and three made foul shots.
Maryland’s talented backcourt duo started to lead it out of the offensive wilderness in the second.
Ayala chipped in with two quick threes after halftime, then Russell found his rhythm, scoring 10 points in seven minutes as Maryland took a 48-39 lead.
The Terrapins continued to roll, making it a 13-point lead (their largest), 55-42, thanks to a Hakim Hart steal that led to a successful and-one, with Manning even pumping his fist on the sideline in approval.
But Penn State rallied one more time with an 11-4 run on the back of 4 points each from Harrar and Pickett. Maryland’s lead was cut to six, 59-53, with just under 3:00 remaining. Even though the Terrapins didn’t score for five of the game’s final six minutes, eight key foul shots by Russell in the final 53 seconds helped Maryland hang on.
The mini-streak comes off of a previous five-game skid for the Terps, and even though only four games remain for Maryland, Scott is happy to see the instruction and energy that comes before a gameday pay off when it counts this late in the season.
“It’t really exciting to see everybody contribute because everybody puts forth a crazy amount of effort at practice,” Scott said. “So just to see what they do at practice can be put on the court is just amazing.”