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Maturity and motor have helped Maryland center Bruno Fernando go from man-child to leading man

University of Maryland men's basketball player Bruno Fernando talks about his maturation in the game. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)

Walking to the visiting bench a few minutes into Maryland’s game at Nebraska on Wednesday night, sophomore center Bruno Fernando was noticeably upset.

Aside from grabbing a few rebounds, Fernando was barely a factor, having not taken a single shot or even touching the ball much in the low post.

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“I think he was frustrated with everything,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said afterward.

As Fernando took a seat, assistant coach Matt Brady walked over and whispered something in his ear. Re-entering the game a few minutes later, Fernando was more engaged.

While it would take until late in the first half for Fernando to score his first basket, his body language and physical presence noticeably helped the Terps.

An early seven-point deficit had become an eight-point lead in an eventual 60-45 victory, a much-needed win for a young team with a still-fragile psyche that had lost three of its previous four games.

Though overshadowed by freshman forward Jalen Smith’s first double double against Big Ten competition — the former Mount Saint Joseph star had 18 points and 11 rebounds — Fernando’s contribution could not be understated.

It was more than his 13 points, career-high 19 rebounds and three blocked shots that helped Maryland win the kind of game the Terps might have lost when he was a freshman last season, or even earlier this season.

It was his selflessness that stood out to Turgeon.

“All Bruno wanted to do was win the game,” Turgeon said. “He was [double-teamed] in three different directions. He didn’t care if he scored; he just wanted to make the right plays.”

As No. 24 Maryland begins a critical three-game stretch against ranked Big Ten opponents Tuesday night with No. 15 Purdue at Xfinity Center, Fernando is in the midst of the most consistent stretch of his career.

The 6-10, 245-pound Angolan has scored in double figures in each of the past 14 games, including a career-high 25 points Jan. 11 against Indiana, and grabbed at least 10 rebounds in all but three of them.

In the 12 Big Ten games during that stretch, he has averaged 15 points,11 rebounds and two blocked shots a game. He has six straight double doubles. He is shooting a league-best 66.2 percent from the field in conference games.

Fernando said he isn’t aware during games of whether he is keeping the streak of double doubles alive or the total — he has 15 — amassed this season, one behind Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ among Big Ten players.

“I don’t really look at the scoreboard. With me, I just try to get every rebound I can. I just go for every single one,” Fernando said, sitting in the media room at Xfinity Center on Friday afternoon.

“I don’t really worry about points, I know that points will come within the game. I have times when my team will try to go through me to make sure I score the ball, things like that.”

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Interestingly, Fernando said that his biggest concern remains how many fouls he has.

“I think the only times I look at scoreboards is to check on fouls, really, if I have one, two or three,” said Fernando, who has cut down noticeably from his freshman year on being foul-prone.

A tip from a teammate

Rebounding wasn’t always a big part of Fernando’s game even though he was typically one of the biggest players on the court, going back to when he converted from soccer to basketball as a teenager in Luanda.

“I think there were times when I wasn't the rebounder that I am now,” Fernando said. “It was more like the transition from high school to college really made me wake up and realize this is one part of my game that I can really make an impact on.”

Fernando said he also learned about rebounding from former teammate Sean Obi, who played sparingly as a graduate transfer last season.

According to Fernando, Obi told him to try to get two rebounds for every minute he played.

“I think Sean Obi was really kind of that spark that hit. I was like, ‘What can I do that he does?’ ” Fernando recalled. “There were times when he played five minutes, but he’d get six rebounds. I was like, ‘Wow, how does he do that?’ ”

Turgeon has said since the season began that there isn’t a more improved player in the country than Fernando, who as a freshman averaged 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, and was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team.

“I can definitely see maturation and improvement in every aspect of my game,” Fernando said. “Especially in posting up, and just being that post player and offensive player that my team needs me to be.

“At the end of day, a lot of times on offense, I’ve got to set the tone for my team. I’ve got to set the speed with which we play at. If I slow down, then everybody slows down. If I go too fast, then everybody else is going to rush.”

Turgeon said Fernando has made a quantum leap in terms of keeping his emotions in check and his head in the game.

“I wouldn’t want to say he’s more emotionally stable, but he’s more consistent with [not] letting a play affect him, his body language,” Turgeon said Friday. “He’s more consistent in practice, he’s more consistent in games. He’s been more steady with his personality; that’s been a huge improvement.”

With Fernando’s ability to consistently pass out of the constant double- and even triple-teams he faces, the Terps have become the best 3-point-shooting team in Big Ten play (39.7 percent) after starting the season as one of the worst in the country.

“The game’s really slowed down for him. He sees things offensively now,” Turgeon said. “He’s gotten more consistent defensively. He can guard [straight] up. He can do a lot of things. Another one is leadership. He’s talking in practice. He’s only a sophomore, but he has to act like a senior on this team.”

Former Maryland All-American Len Elmore, still considered among the school’s best big men more than four decades after his college career ended, said Fernando’s improvement has come in his consistency and assertiveness in the low post.

“Really demanding the ball when he gets down there,” Elmore said Sunday. “That’s one of the things I thought was lacking, even when Diamond Stone was playing [in 2015-16]. He was a talented big, but he didn’t always demand the ball and oftentimes he didn’t get it.

“This team is far more balanced offensively because he’s down low, he demands the ball and his teammates have confidence enough in him to get it to him. Plus he’s able to make [opponents] honor him outside, where he’s got enough of a touch to be able to stretch the defense.”

Getting his due

Fernando’s dominance as perhaps the Big Ten’s best true center led to him being named Friday as one of 10 finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given to the country’s top big man. It came a few days after Fernando was cut from the list of 20 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award that goes to the nation’s top player.

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“Coming in as a four-star recruit, you don’t really get a lot of attention,” Fernando said. “That was never a thing I was looking at. I was never about the attention. For me it really doesn’t matter because it won’t make me not play the way I’m playing. Winning an award is like my team winning. ... People won’t remember who won Player of the Year if your team doesn’t win a championship.”

Fernando’s recent play has also improved his stock among NBA scouts and general managers. After going to the league’s scouting combine last year in Chicago along with Kevin Huerter, who was picked No. 19 overall by the Atlanta Hawks after his sophomore year, Fernando returned to Maryland knowing he had to refine and expand his game.

“No team specifically told me anything. Everybody was telling me to keep being myself and keep doing the things I’m doing,” Fernando said. “I’ve done a great job of keeping that in mind. I can’t really forget who I am — my shot-blocking ability, my rebounding ability, running the floor.

“This year the team requires and demands a lot more out of me [offensively], but I’ve still got to be able to do those things for the team to be successful. At the end of the day, the things I did last year got me in that position [to be invited to the combine], so keep doing it.”

What hasn’t changed since he arrived last season is Fernando’s personality. Though tough losses tend to turn his big smile into a stone face, Fernando tries to emulate what he remembers from watching his favorite player growing up.

“Growing up, I was more about being that energy guy, having that passion on the court, kind of like Kevin Garnett was, just hungry every night,” said Fernando, who also learned some of his post moves from watching Hall of Famer Akeem Olajuwon as well as current All-Star Joel Embiid.

Even that has become more under control this season.

“As a player, I don’t think my emotions were ever negative [toward the team],” he said. “I think it sometimes had a negative impact on myself. Just me, letting it get to me and getting frustrated with myself when I’m not making a shot. Or just running a play wrong.

“I put in too much work to not have too many emotions about it. It’s just who I am, honestly. For the most part, I use it in a positive way, which helps my team get going, celebrating my teammates’ success on the court.”

If anything, Turgeon and his staff have tried to get Fernando to work less, especially in the hours leading up to games when he had a tendency of tiring himself out in the weight room or practice gym.

Still, some believe that’s his greatest attribute.

“He’s got skills, no doubt about — he’s athletic, strong — but mentally that’s where you really earn your position, by being competitive, going after it play after play, not taking a play off,” Elmore said.

“For the most part, that’s what I’ve seen of him. He wants to bang; he wants to dominate. To me, that’s the biggest difference between him and a number of other bigs in the Big Ten and across the nation.”

Fernando said he is able to block out the speculation that he is certain to leave after this season with most mock drafts for 2019 putting him as mid-to-late first-round pick.

For now, Fernando is more consumed with getting the Terps back into the NCAA tournament after missing out last season.

“I focus on where I’m at, and I try to make the best of every situation I’m in,” he said. “I’m not worried about that right now. I’m worried about us. We’ve got regular-season games left; we’ve got tournaments left. That’s the things I’m looking forward to. You can’t worry about the future without completing your current assignment.”

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