- The Washington Times
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The more time Eric Ayala spent away from College Park, the more he found out about himself and his game.

As the offseason between his sophomore and junior seasons dragged on because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Maryland basketball guard’s mind latched onto the good and the bad. He thought of the conference title the Terrapins won and the plays he made — and all the plays he didn’t.

Ayala quickly identified the culprit, the underlying factor that held him back during his sophomore year. He had attempted 146 3-pointers — 18 more than his first season — yet converted those attempts at a rate 13.2 percentage points behind that of his freshman year.

He settled for those shots, he thought. He should work harder for his openings going forward, he decided. So as Ayala worked out during the offseason at 76ers Fieldhouse near his home in Wilmington, Delaware, the junior began to incorporate those changes. And he liked what he saw.

“When I worked out and stuff, I was pretty good in other areas of the game, getting to mid-range, getting to the rim,” Ayala said. “Just constantly trying to mix it up, not just settling for the three-ball.”

As Maryland learns what life without Anthony Cowan is like — a four-year starter who led the team in scoring for three of those seasons — Ayala’s production matters all the more. And while coach Mark Turgeon said replacing Cowan won’t be down to one player, Ayala will play a major role in plugging that gap.

Through three games of his junior year, Ayala has already implemented some of what he worked on at 76ers Fieldhouse. He’s showing the improved shot selection he sought this offseason, not settling for outside looks when he can create something better.

“His mentality has been different this year compared to last year,” Turgeon said. “He knows he needs to score for us to be successful. He needs to take good shots. He needs to run our offense.”

In the Terrapins’ season-opening win on Nov. 25 against Old Dominion, Ayala was perfect from the field. He sunk all four of his long-range attempts, the bulk of his 19 points. But the shot he was most proud of from that 85-67 win was his first.

He drove into the lane off a ball screen from forward Galin Smith, met Monarchs forward Kalu Ezikpe at the rim and finished through contact. That shot settled Ayala for the rest of the contest, he said, and it exhibited exactly the type of style he wants to achieve this year.

“I think that layup early on gave me a little rhythm, just to feel the game out more,” Ayala said. “Just want to mix the game up a little bit more for myself.”

When Maryland met Mount St. Mary’s for its third game, Ayala again showcased that mentality. He was frustrated with two missed threes earlier in the first half, so as the clock ticked down, Ayala adjusted, scoring the final 10 points of the period for his team.

First came a drive to the rim and a basket in the heart of the Mountaineers’ collapsing defense. Two minutes later, he pulled up from mid-range, then did so again on the next trip down the floor. He sank a pair of free throws. And then as the buzzer neared, Ayala pulled up from the elbow, sank his jumper and kept his arm raised in a follow-through as he jogged toward the bench. He had taken over proceedings with that 10-point burst, just as Cowan had done time and again.

“He’s a sniper, a knockdown shooter,” forward Galin Smith said. “I think really highly of him when it comes to his play and what he brings to the team.”

Filling the void Cowan left isn’t Ayala’s job alone. There’s Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell and a slew of others on a team that preaches depth is its greatest strength. But through three games, Ayala has shown signs of a major step forward — he’s averaging 16.3 points while shooting 72 percent from the field.

When Ayala thinks back on his sophomore year, the game that sticks out most is Maryland’s season finale. Of course, that’s when he and his teammates secured a share of the Big Ten regular season title, and that’s when they cut down the nets and lifted a trophy.

But that’s also when Ayala felt he played his best. He scored 19 points in that outing, delivering from all over the floor — from deep, in mid-range and at the rim.

Throughout the offseason, he wanted to turn that performance from standout to standard. And despite a small sample size, Ayala appears well on his way.

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

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