COLLEGE PARK — Maryland men’s basketball fans have become painfully accustomed to seeing their team fritter away big leads, surviving at the end with help of a freshman.
Four years ago, it was often Melo Trimble. Two years ago, it was one of the three freshmen who started for the Terps — Anthony Cowan Jr., Kevin Huerter or Justin Jackson.
On Tuesday night, it was Jalen Smith. The 6-foot-10 forward from Baltimore (Mount Saint Joseph) helped save the Terps in a 73-67 win over Delaware at Xfinity Center after sophomore center Bruno Fernando fouled out.
Smith finished with a double double in his college debut, scoring 19 points and securing 13 rebounds. But it was his defense that might have prevented Maryland from a complete second-half meltdown.
After Delaware cut a 22-point deficit early in the second half to three, 73-70, with 1:21 left, a free throw by Cowan made it four when Smith blocked sophomore guard Kevin Anderson with a little over a minute left.
Smith then altered the drive of redshirt senior Darian Bryant enough, and fellow freshman teammate Aaron Wiggins collected his seventh rebound. Two subsequent free throws by Cowan helped the Terps survive.
“Jalen is a good player,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “He got a lot of things around the rim, a lot of things he got around the rim because of Eric Ayala. I thought defensively he did a good job. He used his length.”
Said Smith: “It was big, focusing on my defense rather than my offense. I was the only big in the game. I had to be the enforcer on the defensive end.”
Smith had to play more at center than power forward, especially after Fernando fouled out with 3:44 remaining. Along with his two big defensive plays at the end of the game, Smith helped keep the Blue Hens at bay with two big baskets.
One came after Delaware cut its deficit to five, 63-58, and Smith grabbed a loose rebound out of the hands of a Blue Hen player after a missed shot by former Mount Saint Joseph teammate Darryl Morsell.
On Maryland’s next possession, Smith took a pass off a drive by Ayala and scored in traffic as he was fouled. Though he missed the free throw — as well as two more later in the game — it was an impressive debut.
“He was good. Ayala was good down the stretch. All in all, when I go through the film, I’ll be happy with the young guys who got to play a lot,” Turgeon said. “That was a lot on their plate.”
After Morsell hit a 3-pointer to open the game for Maryland, and Wiggins hit one a few minutes later, the Terps finished the game 2-for-19 on 3-pointers.
Much of it had to do with the zone defense Delaware used for part of the first half and for the last 15 minutes of the game, helping the Blue Hens claw back from a 58-36 deficit.
“Just being confident,” said Ayala, who missed both of his 3-point attempts. “We went [2-for-19], which probably will never happen again. I ain’t going to say never, but it’s not often going to happen.”
On a night when he shot 4-for-14 from the field overall, Cowan missed all five of his 3-point shots, including a couple of airballs. Wiggins, who came in with a reputation as a knockdown 3-point shooter, was 1-for-6.
Asked about the imbalance between 3-point shooting and getting the ball inside to Fernando, who took only six shots and made them all on dunks or layups, Turgeon shrugged.
“They zoned us for the last 15 minutes, we tried to get it inside,” Turgeon said. “We shot too many 3s early. Nine of our first 16 shots were 3s. We only had two more 3s the last 12 minutes of the first half.
“Our balance was better there. That’s what the defense was giving us. If we made six or seven [in the second half], you wouldn’t be asking me that question. We just didn’t make many tonight.”
Fernando’s foul trouble
One of the big issues going into the season for Maryland was the lack of frontcourt depth behind Fernando and Smith. Though reserves such as freshman Ricky Lindo Jr. and even redshirt senior Ivan Bender played well early, they weren’t even in the game toward the end.
Much was dictated by Delaware’s smaller lineup, which made it more difficult for the Terps to guard them on the perimeter. With Fernando on the bench, and eventually out of the game, it left Smith as Maryland’s only rim protector.
“He was great for us,” Fernando said of Smith. “Those are the kind of things I expect from him, just being at practice every day and seeing him do it over and over. I expect him to do it in the game.”