- The Washington Times
Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The last time Maryland basketball played a game on this court, confetti rained down on the team following the final buzzer.

That was almost another life ago, when coach Mark Turgeon pulled Jalen Smith and Anthony Cowan with under a minute remaining, ensuring they’d get one more standing ovation from the Xfinity Center crowd. That was on March 8 when the Terrapins dispatched Michigan, earning a share of the Big Ten title. Cowan, Smith and their teammates hung around the court for an hour, basking in the moment, lifting a trophy and cutting down the nets.

All of that was before the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus. Two hundred and sixty-two days later, the pandemic is still here. Cowan and Smith, however, aren’t.

When Maryland took the floor Wednesday for the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign — comfortably dispatching Old Dominion, 85-67 — the team did so with the echoes of last season’s glory still ringing in the empty corners of the arena. But those echoes are dissipating; last year’s success is prologue.

Beginning Wednesday, whatever triumphs come from this season will be courtesy of a new core in College Park.

And those pieces announced themselves against the Monarchs, with Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Donta Scott and Aaron Wiggins providing much of the scoring.

The team may count on those four returning starters throughout the season when games get more difficult. But in the tune-up contest Wednesday, the depth this team has spoken of showed through, too. Maryland had 10 different scorers, and four of them finished in double-figures.

“I think our team is definitely going to be different in a way that people haven’t seen before,” Ayala said Nov. 10, “and that’s being a complete team, all around, one through five.”

Ayala ran the point when he was on the floor, dishing three assists while knocking down four triples en route to 19 points. He sliced through the lane and finished through contact for his first score. He wasn’t afraid to pull-up for shots, either, knocking down his fourth trey from the top of the key.

It’s hard to replace Cowan, a four-year starter who led Maryland in scoring for the past three seasons. But Ayala tried his best Wednesday, putting together one of the best games of his career, knocking down all six shots he attempted.

“A lot of people kind of counted us out a little bit and put us on the backburner,” Ayala said. “I really want to win a lot this year. That’s kind of my approach right now: whatever I’ve gotta do to help us win.”

To close a 13-0 run as the first half wound down, center Chol Marial grabbed an offensive board, then laid it back in for an and-1. Players such as Marial — and how they respond to increased roles — will help patch over the loss of Smith, taken by the Phoenix Suns at No. 10 in last week’s NBA Draft.

That will be a job for more than one player. But with Scott recording a career high 14 points, along with transfers Galin Smith and Jairus Hamilton making their debuts, there seems to be options for Turgeon’s team in the frontcourt.

“We see each other as equals, and we’re all just gonna fight,” Scott said. “Having this deep team gives a bunch of guys a lot of energy. Because you can take one guy out, and it’ll be the next best thing, or a similarity.”

Matchups will get more difficult once the Terrapins reach the Big Ten slate, but they passed their first test. And they made some noise doing so, too.

Early in the second half, Hamilton picked off an attempted pass, then dished to Morsell, who was cutting toward the rim. The Maryland senior jumped, twisted around and slammed a reverse dunk, prompting a roar from the bench and resulting in guard Aquan Smart to jump on his teammate in celebration.

While much of the buildup to this season may have centered on how last season went — and how it ended prematurely — that noise has been flushed.

Replacing it were the shouts from the bench, the squeak of shoes and the fake crowd noise that hangs in the background of it all, a subtle reminder of how different this new season is.

“Every day that we can play a game,” Turgeon said, “it’s a blessing.”

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