On Wednesday night, the Terps were bordering somewhere between despair and desperation. A 10-point lead on Miami, built on defense and Wells’ second-half scoring binge, was gone.
This time, a 3-point shot by Wells with 5.9 seconds remaining not only lifted the Terps to a much-needed 74-71 victory, but it provided the 6-foot-4 junior guard with the signature moment of his basketball career.
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“This was my first [official] game-winner, the first of hopefully many,” said Wells, who finished with a team-high 21 points, all coming in the second half.
Asked whether he had ever hit a game-winner back in high school in Raleigh, N.C., Wells said with a smile: “I played with C.J. Leslie and John Wall. I was a part of many game-winners.”
The 3-point shot concluded a perfect second half after two early fouls had sent Wells to the Maryland bench a little more than three minutes into the game.
Wells, who didn’t attempt a shot in the first half, was 7-for-7 in the second half. As a team, Maryland (12-9, 4-4) shot 16-for-23 in the second half and 28-for-50 for the game.
Wells’ shot also helped the Terps avoid what could have been their most painful defeat in a season filled with ugly losses to nonconference opponents such as Boston University and Oregon State, as well as more recently within the Atlantic Coast Conference at North Carolina State.
It certainly took some heat off third-year coach Mark Turgeon, at least momentarily. While Gary Williams had built up more than a decade of equity when his team blew a 10-point lead in the final minute to Duke in 2000-01, Turgeon had not.
“I told our kids after the game, ‘Sometimes it’s good to get a win like that instead of just getting an easy one,'” Turgeon said. “Give Miami credit because they didn’t quit, but it’s a good win for us.”
Turgeon said the final play was designed for Wells to either drive – something Miami (10-10, 2-6) might have expected given how the Hurricanes were playing off him – pull up, or find one of Maryland’s other shooters, junior forward Evan Smotrycz (15 points) in particular.
But Wells, who had missed a similar shot in the final frantic moments in a one-point, season-opening loss to Connecticut in Brooklyn, N.Y., decided to pull up from about 20 feet despite the fact that he had made just one 3-pointer in six attempts in his past six games.
“He had made up his mind,” said Turgeon, who opted not to take a timeout after Miami senior guard Rion Brown (who scored a game-high 25 points) tied the game with a 3-pointer with 19 seconds to go. “He was feeling good. He made some tough shots in the second half. He really played well out there. I was happy for him."
The Terps had blown all of the 10-point lead that Wells had largely helped construct by doing what they have done on many occasions this season, but had not done against the Hurricanes.
Simply put, Maryland panicked.
Leading 71-61 after a pair of free throws by Wells, Maryland watched as two free throws by Brown pulled Miami to within eight; sophomore guard Seth Allen surrendered the ball under the pressure of a double-team and junior guard Nick Faust fouled Brown on a 3-point shot. Brown hit all three free throws with 56 seconds left.
As the announced crowd of 12,061 sensed a collapse, the Terps seemed to get a reprieve when Allen was fouled. But Allen missed the front end of a one-and-one with 35 seconds left and, after a layup by forward Garrius Adams cut Maryland’s lead to 71-68, missed the front end of another one-and-one.
After Brown’s 3-pointer tied the game, Turgeon decided to let his team play. It went against the way he has coached for most of his tenure with the Terps, but on Wednesday night he had finally gone off-script by having his team press early and play zone late in the second half.
This time, he went back to his best player, who delivered his biggest shot since coming to Maryland last season.
After Wells' 3-pointer, Miami freshman guard Manu Lecomte was fouled with 2.1 seconds left. Lecomte missed the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second hoping Miami would get a quick putback opportunity, but Maryland forward Jake Layman grabbed the rebound and time expired.
Turgeon conceded that Wells had played so well in the second half because “he was fresh” after barely playing in the first half. When his team won the scrimmage against Villanova back in the fall, Turgeon conceded that “we didn’t have a play then, but we had a play tonight.”
Admittedly, Turgeon said, “I’d rather have Dez drive it, but I’m just glad he made it.”
So was Wells. He had come into the game and went into that final possession shooting just 33 percent on 3-pointers for the season (11-for-33) and under 35 percent (54-for-155) in his three-year college career that began at Xavier.
But somehow he had the confidence to take the shot with the game on the line.
“If you don’t take that shot, you can’t be afraid of the consequences, the repercussions I had missed that shot, ” Wells said. “It would have been short-term memory if I had missed it and it’s short-term memory that I made it. Now it’s move on to the next game.”