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Sparked by Jalen Smith and ‘street ball,’ No. 17 Maryland overcomes 15-point deficit to beat Northwestern, 77-66

The Maryland men’s basketball team seemed to be going through the motions in the first half Tuesday night against Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The 17th-ranked Terps were not only stagnant on offense, settling for 3-point shots that rattled off the rim or overshooting the basket entirely, but they were also shaky on defense.

Faced with a 15-point deficit in the first half and down 14 at halftime, matching its biggest halftime deficit of the season, Maryland was energized in the second half by sophomore forward Jalen Smith and rallied to beat the Wildcats, 77-66. Smith finished with a career-high 25 points, with 21 coming in the second half, and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead his team to its first road victory this season.

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Graduate transfer Pat Spencer (Boys’ Latin), who continued his remarkable transition from the best lacrosse player in the country at Loyola Maryland to a starting point guard for a Big Ten team, led Northwestern (6-12, 1-7 Big Ten) with 17 points and nine rebounds. With the help of five 3-pointers, sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins added a career-high 17 points in his third straight game off the bench.

The second half performance helped the Terp avoid what could have been their worst loss of the season, coming against the Big Ten’s last-place team.

“The second half, we changed the way we were playing, changed our mental attitude," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "We played for the love of the game. Guys were enjoying it. They weren’t enjoying the first half. We’ve been on the road, we haven’t enjoyed it a lot. The confidence we shot with in the second half, I haven’t seen it all year. Maybe one game, [the] Marquette game. We really played with great confidence in the second half.”

Said Wiggins: “When we have the energy, and we all have the faith that we can win any game that we play, regardless of the score, regardless of how we start off. It just shows our potential as a team. We have the abilities, we have everything we need. We’ve got to make sure we come to play."

With Tuesday’s win, Maryland became the first major conference team to rally from two 14-point halftime deficits in regular-season conference play in the same season since UCLA in 2004-05, according to Stats Perform. The Terps trailed Illinois 39-25 at the break Dec. 7 before securing a 59-58 victory.

The first half seemed to be a continuation of the second half against Purdue, when Maryland (15-4, 5-3) nearly blew a 16-point halftime advantage after leading by as many as 18 in an eventual 57-50 victory. An impromptu halftime speech Tuesday by Turgeon, who was encouraged by his assistants to give one, led to the Terps scoring a season-high 51 points in a half after scoring just 20 on Saturday in the second half.

“I told ‘em, ‘We’re going to change our season at halftime, guys,’ ” Turgeon recalled. “'We’re having a good year, but I want to make it a great year.' I think the guys made a nice step forward at halftime to hopefully get us there."

Wiggins said even before Turgeon came into the visitor’s dressing room, the players had talked among themselves.

“Every single player said something about the energy, about the body language, the way we look out there, whether or not we believed we were going to win,” said Wiggins, who started the second half and hit a 3-pointer on Maryland’s first possession. “As soon as Turg walked in, he said ‘We’ve got to believe it, we’ve got to want it. This is the start of a new season. We didn’t start before the game, we got to start right now at halftime.' That’s everything everybody took personally at the start of the second half.”

Asked why he thought the second half would be a turning point for the season, Turgeon said it was more “praying" than premonition.

“I went in to meet with the coaches and I was like ‘You got to be kidding me, this is two halves in a row that we shot 24%, I can’t believe the way we’re guarding,’ ” Turgeon said. “And they said, ‘Coach you’ve got to give a speech, man.’ I went in there and gave a speech. I’ve given it before. And when I said this one part of the speech and they all smiled, I knew we had a shot.”

Smith said that Turgeon encouraged his team to play “street ball” and the message resonated with a team that has often looked tight, especially at the offensive end.

“That just fired everybody up,” said Smith, who finished the game 7-for-13 from the field and 9-for-9 from the free-throw line. “Because everybody knows in street ball, you’re just playing and you’re not worried about anything. That just gave us a lot of energy, a lot of confidence. That just gave us the notion to play hard and to play fearless and just to put everything out there on the court."

Smith, who rarely shows much emotion, went as far as playfully point to the scoreboard in the final minute with victory at hand.

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“I used to do it a lot in high school,” the former Mount Saint Joseph star said. “Coming into my freshman year, I tried to mature more and not do it because my parents told me I looked like a fool doing it. That just brought out the emotion right there. It was just amazing.”

Totally in his understated character, Smith didn’t think his 10th double double of the season was a signature performance.

"I just treated it like it’s any other game. I know what I’m capable and my team knows what I’m capable of, and the shots were just falling for me in the second half,” he said. “I was just, I wouldn’t say take over, but pretty much helping my team get to the point where we needed to be.”

More than the career-high in points, the play Smith made that stood out came late in the game, when he dove for a loose ball with Spencer and used his length to poke it to a teammate.

“Stix made 3s, I’ve seen him do that, I’ve seen him make free throws, but I haven’t seen him dive for a loose ball like that,” Turgeon said. “That was really cool for me, that was a highlight. I had a double take, I couldn’t believe it was Jalen.”

Said Smith: “To be honest, when I actually dove on the floor for it, I thought I wasn’t going to get it because I dove really far from the ball, but I guess I just slid to it. I knew Pat dove with me and it was a battle to get it. Once I got it ... the energy just went up from there.”

Trailing 53-43 with 12:25 to go, the Terps went on a 13-2 run to take their first lead of the game. After Spencer scored on two free throws and a reverse layup to give the Wildcats a 59-58 lead, Spencer followed a 3-point shot by sophomore guard Eric Ayala with a shot in the lane to tie the game at 61. The Terps took over from there.

Two free throws by junior guard Darryl Morsell — the second coming after Northwestern was called for a lane violation — started a game-ending 14-5 run by the Terps. Maryland was also helped by shooting 26-for-29 from the from the free-throw line. After missing seven of their first eight 3-point shots, Maryland hit 12 of its last 25.

Maryland will take a two-game winning streak into Indiana Sunday, where the Terps have not won since joining the Big Ten.

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No. 17 Maryland@Indiana

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

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