Jalen Smith started Wednesday night’s game against No. 24 Nebraska looking like someone who was still trying to recover from a 24-hour stomach bug, not to mention a freshman playing in just his third Big Ten basketball game.
The former Mount Saint Joseph star finished it looking like the McDonald’s All American he was as a senior in high school and a player many project to be a first-round NBA draft pick whenever he leaves Maryland.
Smith scored his team’s final seven points, including a game-winning floater with 3.8 seconds left to give the Terps a 74-72 win over the Cornhuskers, Maryland’s first victory over a ranked opponent since beating No. 18 Purdue on Feb. 6, 2016.
“It was a great win over a really good team. Still did the same things down the stretch that we’ve been doing all year — we turned it over and we fouled,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said.
“But in the end we were good enough to overcome it. We had great execution against that 1-3-1 [zone defense] late — it’s a really good zone, a long zone — showed a play that we hadn’t shown and ‘Stix’ made a big-time play.”
Smith, who missed his first college game last Saturday against Radford after getting sick at the team’s shootaround that day, said Wednesday’s sluggish start was caused as much by some big-game nerves.
“I think it was just nerves of the Big Ten play. Not to say that every other game didn’t count, but these games really count," Smith said. “Yeah, just getting back into the flow because I did miss the last game.”
After scoring just three points in the first half — an early corner 3-pointer — Smith said he got a pep talk from Turgeon and his assistants with a pretty clear message.
“At halftime the coaches told me that I’m too good to be taking a back seat to anybody and I can play with anybody on the court,” Smith said after the game. “Just to keep shooting my shot and let the game come to me.”
Junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. led Maryland with 19 points, while sophomore center Bruno Fernando finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds, but also committed six of Maryland’s 13 turnovers.
Senior guard James Palmer Jr., who scored 24 of his 26 points in the second half of last year’s 70-66 win over the Terps in Lincoln, led Nebraska (11-3. 1-2) with the same total Wednesday, including 13 in the first 11 minutes.
Memories of Michigan
After Smith’s floater gave the Terps the lead, Nebraska coach Tim Miles called timeout. Turgeon followed with one of his own after freshman forward Ricky Lindo Jr. appeared confused about where he was supposed to be.
“Thank God we had a timeout, it really helped us,” Turgeon said. “I almost kept Stix in the game and I subbed Ricky in. I felt like he could guard a little bit better on the perimeter.”
As happened at Michigan last season, when Turgeon was criticized for not guarding the inbounds pass that led to the Wolverines getting two free throws to win, Maryland didn’t faceguard the inbounds passer Wednesday.
A pass over halfcourt was caught by sophomore guard Thomas Allen, whose lob pass to junior center Isaiah Roby was batted away by Lindo as the final buzzer sounded.
“They ran a helluva play with 3.8 [seconds left], but my guys did everything right,” Turgeon said. “Last year at Michigan we did everything wrong. That’s a good sign to me as a coach. … It was a big-time play by Ricky.”
With Maryland ahead by one last season after a 3-pointer by Kevin Huerter, Fernando fouled Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who made a pair of free throws with 1.2 seconds left to help the No. 23 Wolverines survive.
Asked if Wednesday’s final play brought some flashbacks, Fernando smiled.
“I didn’t even try to think about it,” Fernando said. “I was just trying to get a stop and we did. … It was a better executed plan [defensively]. I had to stay in the middle and double team the guy [Allen]. All five guys on the court executed right and it helped us get a win.”
Getting over the hump
The victory was the first for Maryland (11-3, 2-1) over a ranked team since 2016, a stretch of 88 games, and only its eighth win in 19 games over the past two seasons decided by six points or fewer.
“I think it was a huge win, we prepared really well for this game,” Cowan said. “I think coach had us ready to the best of his ability. I think it was a big win, especially for us to be such a young team and to be able to handle such a big game.”
Asked what it meant to beat a ranked team, Cowan said: “I wasn’t really looking at the ranking I was just wanted to win a close game. Those games really slipped away from us previously so it was good to have one back today.”
Turgeon’s players gave him a water-bottle shower after the game.
As happy as he was for his team, Turgeon said it wasn’t going to help him in coaching this year’s team in close games. Turgeon doesn’t seem to care much about the criticism he has received the past couple of years
“I don’t worry about it,” Turgeon said. “My track record over the years is really good in late games. I’ve had this tough little stretch. Everybody wants to blame me, that’s fine.”