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As his career winds down, senior Jared Nickens heats up for Maryland

COLLEGE PARK — A little more than midway through the first half of Maryland’s 77-66 home win over Minnesota last month, Jared Nickens missed a 3-pointer five seconds after the Terps took possession.

Nickens failed to get back on defense, and point guard Nate Mason buried a 3 for the Gophers. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon immediately pulled the 6-foot-7 senior wing and played him sparingly the rest of the half and not at all after halftime.

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They met the next day.

“Obviously, he took it well,” Turgeon said Friday, without divulging what was discussed. “We had a really good meeting the next day. And he’s played well.”

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With the Big Ten's thinnest rotation, the Terps had trouble balancing offense and defense in a 74-70 loss in College Park on Wednesday night.

In a five-game stretch that ended with Nickens missing the only shot he tried against Minnesota, he had misfired on 21 of 27 shots overall, including on 17 of his 19 3-point tries. Since the talk with Turgeon, Nickens has had one of the more productive stretches of his career.

Over the past five games, Nickens has made 17 of 33 shots overall, including 13 of 26 3-pointers. He shot 5-for-10 overall and 3-for-7 from 3-point range in Maryland’s 74-70 loss at Penn State on Wednesday.

What Turgeon said to Nickens in their meeting on Jan. 19 — and apparently how he said it — made an impression.

“I just took what he said with open arms, just listened to the message instead of how he said it,” said Nickens, who is averaging 9.6 points in a little over 23 minutes per game over the past five games. “Just took it and moved forward. It helped me a lot.”

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Seth Berger, who coached Nickens for two seasons at Westtown School in West Chester, Pa., and is still in touch with him, said Thursday: “I don’t think there’s been a lack of willingness on Jared’s part to try to take coaching and improve. He just happened to have some struggles, which is not uncommon.”

As he heads toward his final home game on senior day against Michigan in two weeks, Nickens is playing a similar role and showing the same confidence he did as a freshman — coming off the bench and hunting down 3-point shots.

The big difference is that the team Nickens played on as a freshman made Maryland’s first NCAA tournament appearance under Turgeon and Nickens played a big role in its first tourney victory, scoring 14 points off the bench against Valparaiso.

This year’s team, losers of four of the past five games and six of the past eight going into Saturday’s home matchup with Northwestern, will likely have to win the Big Ten tournament in order to keep the streak of three straight NCAA tournaments alive.

Don Markus on Jared Nickens' effort going for naught, Maryland's defensive woes and Bryce Jordan Center being a house of horrors.

Asked before practice Friday about the difference in his role this season compared with three years ago, Nickens said: “I’ve played in all types of games, seen all types of different lineups, matchups, defenses. I would say my wisdom and experience helps a lot.”

Given the way opposing teams are now geared to slowing down sophomore guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter, Nickens and redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley have become a bigger part of the team's offense.

Huerter said after the Penn State game that he hasn’t been surprised by the recent scoring burst from Nickens.

“It’s Jared’s senior year,” Huerter said. “I’m sure there were times in his career where he wished he got more minutes, but at this point, he’s making the most of it. He’s playing as hard as he can. He realizes that we’re starting to get to the tail end of our season and he’s got to play well for us to be good.”

For the first time since he came to Maryland as part of a class that featured Melo Trimble, Nickens has developed more of a midrange game, shocking those who are accustomed to seeing him pull up from behind the 3-point line by putting the ball on the floor and shooting from 10 or 15 feet.

“The way our offense has been set up since I’ve been here, guys get open shots and Turgeon's always said, ‘If you’re open, you’ve got to shoot it,’ ” said Nickens, who has shot 3-pointers on more than 80 percent of his total career attempts and has hit 37.4 percent from long range in his career.

“In terms of me putting the ball on the floor more lately, it’s me taking what the defense is giving me,” Nickens added. “We changed our offense around a little bit — we move a lot more. You’ve got to read and react. There’s a lot of different lanes opening up.”

Turgeon said it’s been a gradual process and given Nickens’ reputation as a player more comfortable spotting up for a 3-pointer than moving closer to the basket, it’s become a necessity.

“Guys are running at him, so he has to do it,” Turgeon said. “I’d like for him to become a little better passer. He becomes a little tunnel-visioned when he shot-fakes and drives and there’s guys open. We’ve watched a little film on that and talked to him about that a little bit. He’s shooting well. He’s really helping us.

The Terps lose their sixth straight Big Ten road game and fourth in five games overall.

“He made some really big shots the other night for us. He’s playing better defense because of it. He's one of those kids who wants please, wants to do well. He gets a little self-conscious when his jumper’s not going. He’s trying. He’s having a really good league season for us, which is important when we’re so limited.”

There have been times when Nickens has shown more intensity on the defensive end, including the first half of the Michigan game on Jan. 15 and the second half of Sunday’s win over Wisconsin.

There have also been times when Nickens has looked slow to react, not closing in on Penn State’s Lamar Stevens quick enough when a player not known as a 3-point shooter banged in a couple of them during a 10-for-12 shooting, 25-point night.

Asked what happened with Stevens, Nickens said: “Just trying to follow the scouting report and things don’t always go your way. That’s just part of basketball, part of life. As far as defense, we’re down, short [on players]. I just want to stay on the floor. This is my last year. Just want to give it my all.”

Nickens, whose best season came as a freshman when he averaged 6.1 points in 19.3 minutes a game — helping the 28-7 Terps by hitting 39 percent of his 3-pointers — knows his life as a Terp is nearly over.

"It’s kind of bittersweet. I don’t really feel it yet; I try not to think about it,” he said. “The most important thought is the game tomorrow.”

The gist of what Turgeon said to Nickens wasn’t that much different from what he has said to other seniors whose careers are winding down, often to those who might not have been given the role they once envisioned.

“You say it to every senior, ‘You’ve got eight games left, nine games left. What are going to do with it?’ ” Turgeon said Friday. “‘You’re going to go out like this? Or you’re going to go out like you should go out?’ I think he’s decided he wants to go out playing well. Hopefully that will translate to some wins for our team down the stretch."

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