The skepticism that had recently followed the Maryland men’s basketball team during its stretch of three defeats in four games seemed to reach a peak going into Wednesday night’s matchup against Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Despite the Associated Press Top 25 media pollsters keeping the Terps ranked this week despite their recent skid, No. 24 Maryland was 2-point underdog against a team that had lost five straight games, as well as one of its most important players with a season-ending knee injury.
There were times early in both halves when the Terps struggled to score or stop the Cornhuskers — a disturbing pattern that still needs to be corrected — in falling behind at the start 15-8 and later having an 11-point lead early in the second half cut to a mere two points.
Maryland appeared on the brink of self-destructing.
But a combination of a defense that communicated a lot better than in Friday’s 69-61 defeat at Wisconsin and a dominant performance by big men Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith helped the Terps break out of their slump and give themselves a chance to still get one of the top four spots in the Big Ten, as well as a double-bye in the conference tournament.
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 60-45 victory:
1. Bruno Fernando is not the villain Nebraska fans thought he was in the second half.
By now, many have seen the replay of Fernando trying to free himself from Tanner Borchardt after backing down the Nebraska center before rising up for a dunk. It’s been all over social media and even made SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays on Wednesday night.
Truth is, the instigator was probably Borchardt, who, after falling down while trying to draw an offensive foul, seemed to use his outstretched legs to scissor Fernando’s left ankle as he tried to elevate for the dunk.
When Fernando came down after the dunk, he immediately lifted his foot upon contact with Borchardt’s chest. If there was any pressure applied, it appeared to be incidental.
Having watched in person a similar play nearly three decades ago — former Duke star’s Christian Laettner’s purposeful step on the chest of Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake during the classic 1992 NCAA East Regional final won in overtime on Laettner’s last-second 20-foot turnaround — this one appeared to be much different.
First, Laettner actually looked down at Timberlake as he took the step. Second, as great a college player as Laettner was, he was known for being unlikable, even to his own teammates, and years later, by his own admission in ESPN’s “I Hate Christian Laettner” 30 for 30 documentary.
Though not exactly a gentle giant, Fernando has come a lot closer to hurting himself by hitting the padded basket supports than he has an opposing player. The tone and content of his postgame statement were also indicative of the competitive, but good-natured, personality of the 6-foot-10 Angolan.
A Big Ten spokesman said Thursday afternoon that the play involving Fernando and Borchardt, as with every play in the game, is currently under review from league officials. While Nebraska coach Tim Miles was called for a technical foul for arguing the non-call, he might want to tell Borchardt that he’s supposed to use his feet to play defense, not squeezing another player’s ankle.
2. Until the Terps find another reliable scorer, Anthony Cowan Jr.’s recent shooting slump has to be a major concern.
Despite scoring a season-low five points, the junior guard did a lot defensively to contribute to the victory, most notably shutting out Nebraska guard Glynn Watson Jr., who went 0-for-10 for the field on a night when the Terps held the Cornhuskers to a season-low in terms of both points and shooting percentage (a frigid 21.1 percent that seemed to match the Arctic conditions outside the arena).
Cowan also had four assists and just one turnover, another indication that he wasn’t letting his shooting (2-for-10, 0-for-4 on 3-pointers) affect the rest of his offensive game. Perhaps the most important thing is that, according to Turgeon, Cowan’s body language was good despite his struggles. That isn’t always the case.
Still, unless Cowan can suddenly find his stroke, or at least get to the free-throw line more (he was cold there too, missing two of three) Maryland will have to get more scoring from its other players aside from Fernando. Certainly freshman Jalen Smith did his part, with a solid and at times dominant 18-point performance.
It’s rare that a team can win so easily on the road — it marked the fourth straight road victory that the Terps won by double digits — when only two players score in double figures. Chances are, Cowan’s shot will return, but in the meantime, Smith and fellow freshmen Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith Jr., as well as sophomore Darryl Morsell, will have to do a little more.
3. A good time for a break for a huge game.
Maryland’s next game won’t be until Tuesday against red-hot Purdue, which will likely come into Xfinity Center riding a seven-game winning streak after playing Nebraska in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday.
Considering how the Terps have played over the past 2 ½ weeks, and how the offense still looked at times Wednesday, Turgeon should use Maryland’s longest break since December to work on getting his team to play more efficiently.
Turgeon will also have to work against his team getting a little rusty — at least from a mental standpoint. Maryland has not fared well after long breaks in Turgeon’s eight years, most recently losing to Seton Hall at home coming out of an 11-day gap for final exams.
But considering what’s at stake and the schedule ahead — after the No. 15 Boilermakers, the Terps go on the road against No. 7 Michigan and No. 20 Iowa — getting a few days off to get up shots and watch tape isn’t a bad thing.