Bruno Fernando was frustrated, feeling a little claustrophobic with all the double teams the Nebraska men’s basketball team was throwing at him. Anthony Cowan Jr. was still in an offensive funk, seemingly trying to find a balance between not shooting too much or even at all.
It was left to Jalen Smith to rescue No. 24 Maryland from another slow start and potentially another bad loss.
Smith, who like Fernando has been frustrated recently with the way opposing teams have been using their physicality to defend him, and like Cowan has gone from dominating to disappearing in a matter of minutes in some games, did just that.
After scoring 11 straight points in the first half to help the Terps go on a 20-5 run that turned an early seven-point deficit into an eight-point halftime lead, Smith scored seven more in a 15-4 run that eventually led to a 60-45 victory Wednesday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The former McDonald's All American and Mount Saint Joseph star finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, his third double double of his freshman year, and, more importantly, his first against Big Ten competition.
“We were really struggling. It was 15-8, and ‘Stix’ really kind of changed the game for us offensively,” coach Mark Turgeon said after Maryland (18-6, 9-4) won its fourth Big Ten road game this season, double last season’s output.
The performance by Smith was partly the byproduct of the Cornhuskers playing their third straight game without senior forward Isaac Copeland, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered against Ohio State on Jan. 26, but also the extra practice time Smith had put in recently.
Since Smith finished with just six points and three rebounds in a 69-55 loss at Michigan State on Jan. 21, starting a stretch of three defeats in four games that knocked the Terps from a second-place tie to fifth in the Big Ten, Turgeon has tried to toughen up Smith.
“ ‘Stix’ has gotten four or five extra weight workouts in,” Turgeon said. “After practice, he sticks around and we get the pads out and we beat on him pretty good, trying toughen him up a little bit and it’s starting to carry over. … He’s working to become a better player.”
Smith said he can feel a difference after going through those post-practice sessions with strength coach Kyle Tarp and some of the team’s student managers, who use plastic blocking pads as well as their own forearms to simulate what the skinny 215-pound forward might encounter during a game.
“I believe I’m holding onto the ball more during those physical bumps and hits, and it’s helping me open up my shot and finishing layups around the rim,” said Smith, who had six offensive rebounds and only two turnovers.
Smith took a season-high 16 shots, hitting eight of them, including a straightaway 3-pointer that helped open a 44-33 lead after Nebraska (13-10, 3-9) closed an 11-point deficit early in the second half to two. Smith celebrated by raising his arms in the air as a boxer might after a knockout.
“After the bad game I had [against Wisconsin, when he had only five points and four rebounds in a 69-61 loss], that me happy,” said Smith. “I guess that was my yell.”
Said Fernando: “We always count on him to have a good night. Obviously we got to get him going and things like that. We’re a very different team whenever he’s playing the way he played tonight.”
Bruno gets booed for stepover
Fernando, who as a freshman last season scored a then-career-high 21 points in a 70-66 loss against the Cornhuskers, got off to a slow start Wednesday offensively but eventually finished with 13 points and a career-high 19 rebounds.
Early in the game, Fernando showed some frustration after he had trouble getting the ball, and when he did, finishing at the rim. After Turgeon took him out, assistant coach Matt Brady went over to the 6-10 Angolan to calm him down.
“I couldn’t get myself going and I was just trying to make the right plays all the time,” Fernando said. “I was mad at myself and I let it show. It just happens within a game. I was able to settle and just play the game and let it flow and trust my teammates.”
Along with Smith, Fernando played a big part in blowing the game open in the second half. After backing down Tanner Borchardt, Fernando dunked as Nebraska’s 6-8, 250-pound senior center fell to the court.
As Fernando ran back on defense, he got momentarily tangled up with the prone Borchardt. Replays showed that Fernando’s foot inadvertently landed on Borchardt’s chest, but the Maryland sophomore quickly tried to extricate himself by high-stepping away.
The crowd thought Fernando had intentionally planted a foot, even lightly, on Borchardt, as former Duke star Christian Laettner appeared to do to Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake during the classic 1992 Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia.
“I was trying to get out of his way,” Fernando said. “I haven't seen the video yet but the way people are talking, they’re saying something different than what really happened. For me, personally, I didn’t have any intentions of hurting anybody. That’s not who I am, that’s not part of my game.”
Cowan’s offensive struggles continue
For the third straight game, Maryland’s leading scorer had a tough time with his offensive game. Cowan, who shot 4 -for-16 (including 2-for-9 on 3-pointers) at Wisconsin, finished with a a season-low five points, missing eight of 10 overall, including all four of his 3-pointers.
Turgeon chose to look at Cowan’s overall performance, including his defense on Nebraska guard Glynn Watson Jr., who went scoreless and missed all 10 shots he tried, as well as the fact that Cowan had four assists and just one turnover.
“He’s frustrated, he knows he didn’t play well,” Turgeon said. “But he defended. Watson’s pretty good. He did what he had to do. He did some really good things out there. He just didn’t make shots. But I thought his body language was better.”