Sunday, November 27, 2022

Eric Ayala led Maryland through tumultuous senior season

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Ayala grew up as an solely youngster with a single guardian, and he and his mom have a good bond that always feels just like a two-person group. A few years after that Xfinity Center dialog, Ayala received a tattoo on his proper arm depicting a tiger and a cub, symbolizing his relationship together with his mother. That’s all she wished for her son at Maryland — folks round him who cared — “and they have,” she says as his school profession inches towards its finish.

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Before this season, he vowed to assist the transfer-laden Terps go additional. Instead, Ayala navigated an in-season teaching change when Turgeon stepped down in December. This Maryland group (15-16, 7-13 Big Ten) enters the convention match because the No. 10 seed and much from the NCAA match image. Any run must begin with a win Thursday over Michigan State, which has overwhelmed the Terps twice in a 2021-22 marketing campaign that most likely will turn out to be the college’s first shedding season since 1992-93.

Ayala holds on to hope. When requested in regards to the spotlight of his senior 12 months, he takes a protracted pause and says possibly it hasn’t occurred but. He finds positives within the season — a win over Ohio State with Maryland’s 2002 nationwide title group in attendance and the way in which the Terps mustered 4 wins of their ultimate six video games of the common season. But that is nonetheless a dreary finish for the senior who has been a staple in Maryland’s beginning lineups for 4 years.

After the Terps misplaced to Virginia Tech, the gamers arrived for what they thought can be a typical movie session. Ayala was prepared to determine what went fallacious and listen to Turgeon’s subsequent recreation plan. Ayala noticed potential within the gamers round him. But that day, Turgeon informed the group he had stepped down. Danny Manning took over because the interim coach. Shock and emotion crammed the room, even for Ayala, who’s largely even-keeled and unflappable.

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Ayala views Turgeon as a father determine. His mother mentioned the change was troublesome for her son to deal with. But “you can’t sit in that darkness,” Ayala mentioned.

Since Ayala’s freshman 12 months, his coaches considered him because the previous soul of the group. He has scored 1,432 factors in his profession and made 221 three-pointers, the third most in program historical past. Ayala, a 6-foot-5 guard from Wilmington, Del., is second on the group in scoring, averaging 14.6 factors regardless of a wrist harm that restricted him for a brief stretch this season. Ayala is joined by three seniors, all transfers, and he’s the one participant left from his massive freshman class. So Ayala positioned some accountability on himself to assist information this group through the turbulence.

After Turgeon’s departure eight video games into the season, Ayala puzzled how different groups responded to related conditions. Then he realized the rarity of an early season teaching change. Ayala apologized for cursing and described the group’s mind-set as: “F— it. We’ve just got to figure it out.”

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Ayala in contrast the urgency to what he is aware of finest: He mentioned it’s like when a group guards you a sure manner and that you must shortly work out methods to adapt so as to rating. There was no time for him to really feel sorry for himself.

About per week after the abrupt news, Maryland’s win over a ranked Florida group in December helped “change the narrative from a negative trajectory,” Ayala mentioned. But then the Terps stumbled to a 3-11 begin in convention play. They have spent the previous few months attempting to salvage their season.

“We’ve got a lot of fighters on our team, a lot of guys who like to compete and guys that just don’t give up,” Ayala mentioned. “We all kind of come from similar backgrounds. We all embody that.”

They take solace in that dedication and have loved the reward of a number of marquee wins. The dwelling victory in opposition to then-No. 22 Ohio State made it really feel as if “nothing that happened all year mattered,” Ayala mentioned. In some video games, the Terps have climbed again from large deficits, solely to finally fall simply brief.

What’s troublesome a couple of season corresponding to this, Ayala mentioned, are the expectations. He sees Maryland as a blue-blood program, and he got here to College Park to be a part of a group that may very well be among the many nation’s finest. With the attitude of this season’s struggles, Ayala appreciates the Big Ten title from 2020 much more.

He nonetheless has confidence on this group. During the common season, Maryland beat the Big Ten’s prime seed (Illinois) in one in all two conferences, and the Terps misplaced by only one level in opposition to the No. 2 seed (Wisconsin) and the No. 3 seed (Purdue). But when he discusses these expectations considered as the usual at Maryland, Ayala additionally mentions the significance of adjusting. That changed into a theme of the season.

Heading into his senior day recreation in opposition to Minnesota, Ayala mentioned he by no means attended promenade in highschool and he didn’t need a commencement get together. That comes from his laid-back persona, his mother mentioned. But earlier than Maryland acknowledged Ayala on the court docket final week, she seen pleasure from her son, who isn’t over-the-top within the emotion he expresses.

Ayala mentioned he by no means pictured how he wished his profession to finish, apart from explaining months in the past his purpose of happening a postseason run. Too a lot fills his busy days for Ayala to harp on how this season may have unfolded. And the fact is that many gamers don’t get an ideal ending to their careers.

Ayala nonetheless seeks off-the-court recommendation from Turgeon, and so they speak on the telephone at instances. Before the senior day ceremony, Ayala thought of that recruiting go to, acknowledging the symmetry with this second. His mother remembers him saying: “We came in together. We’re leaving here together.” Ayala’s mother feels nervous in entrance of a crowd — the alternative of her son, who’s comfy in public-facing moments — so he held her hand.

The enviornment announcer launched Ayala as “the heart and soul of the team,” then he and his mother emerged from the tunnel. Ayala acknowledged the gang, celebrated together with his teammates and returned to his mother’s aspect. They walked towards Manning, the interim coach ready with flowers and a framed jersey.

After navigating three months of chaos, Ayala’s mother mentioned, “that was a very special moment for him.”

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