A last-second swat by sophomore forward Jalen Smith preserved the Maryland men’s basketball team’s 72-70 win against Nebraska on Tuesday night, but coach Mark Turgeon and his players were disappointed with their defensive effort against a team that entered Xfinity Center with just two wins in the Big Ten.
For a team that prides itself on its defense, Tuesday night’s lapse came at an odd time.
The demeanor from Turgeon and several players after Tuesday night’s win didn’t resemble that of a team that had just won its seventh straight game and 14th at home this season.
But after nearly blowing a 14-point lead to a Nebraska team that entered Tuesday with eight straight losses and was playing without one of its top scorers, Maryland was left “unsatisfied,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said.
Throughout the season, Turgeon has repeatedly said that the defensive side will be his team’s defining factor, especially when the Terps go through stretches in which they struggle to score. So after a game in which Nebraska shot 21% from 3-point range but somehow stayed in the game until the final seconds, Turgeon had a blunt assessment of his team’s defense.
“We’re a good defensive team. We weren’t tonight,” Turgeon said.
Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. echoed his coach’s views, and went so far as to say Tuesday was probably his worst individual defensive performance in his four years at Maryland.
“That’s a wake-up call for me,” Cowan said. “Not only as a player on the team but as a leader on the team.”
The defense wasn’t so much of a problem in the first half, as the Terps built a 13-point lead heading into halftime and Nebraska shot just 27% from the field.
But Maryland didn’t start the second half with the same intensity and eventually found itself neck-and-neck with Nebraska before coming out with a too-close-for-comfort victory. Smith blocked Cam Mack’s potential game-winning layup with less than a second to go and made a free throw to seal the victory.
Turgeon accepted responsibility for not having his team “mentally ready” to play a lesser opponent, while also being quick to remind reporters that the Terps still lead the toughest conference in college basketball this season.
Turgeon also vowed to have his team sharper for Saturday night’s nationally televised game in East Lansing against Michigan State, which on Tuesday knocked off No. 22 Illinois in Champaign.
Maryland needed every bit of Jalen Smith’s efforts.
Despite Nebraska’s focus on clogging the paint and denying Smith post touches, the Mount Saint Joseph product easily obtained his 15th double double of the season — and nearly reached it in the first half.
While the Terps are led by Cowan, it’s Smith’s play on both ends of the floor that has catapulted Maryland to the top of Big Ten standings and put it in place for one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament in March.
“He’s incredible. Jalen is a guy who’s got such a unique skillset for someone that size and that athleticism,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said.
“His ability to step out and knock down the 3, what he’s shooting in league play from the 3-point line is pretty incredible. The kid is just such a unique player, because of the skillset and the size.”
Smith’s rim protection has been the most important aspect of Maryland’s defense, with a lack of depth inside and freshman center Chol Marial receiving few minutes in his return from injury.
“He’s hooping. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” Cowan said. “He’s scoring, getting rebounds. I don’t know how many [double doubles former Maryland forward] Bruno [Fernando] got, but I challenged him to surpass that, so hopefully he can do that.”
As a sophomore, Fernando registered 22 double doubles, which ranks second most in program history, before leaving for the NBA draft. With seven regular-season games remaining, and the conference and NCAA tournament weeks away, Smith is within reach of topping his former frontcourt mate.
Outside of Aaron Wiggins, Turgeon still hasn’t settled on solid bench options.
Cowan was on the bench for just 40 seconds before returning in the first half and played the entire second half as Turgeon continues to rely heavily on his senior leader.
Turgeon went eight deep Tuesday night, but every starter logged over 30 minutes as Maryland barely held of Nebraska’s second-half push.
Sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins, who continues to come off the bench in a sixth-man role, played 20 minutes. The other two players who entered the game, sophomore guard Serrel Smith and Marial, played just eight and six minutes, respectively.
As Maryland gained its largest lead of the game minutes into the second half, Turgeon look poised to be able to empty his bench and get other players some playing time. But with the Cornhuskers quickly cutting into the lead, every starter played at least 15 minutes in the second half and Turgeon reduced his rotation to just six players, with Wiggins the lone player coming off the bench.
When asked what sophomore forward Ricky Lindo, who did not play for the second time this season, had to show to receive more playing time, Turgeon said he needed to see more consistency from him on defense.
The re-emergence of Ayala, who had a season-high 16 points, as well as Donta Scott, who recorded his first career double double, is a good sign for Maryland. But the search for more depth, particularly inside, will continue as the Terps head to East Lansing.
No. 9 Maryland@Michigan State
Saturday, 6 p.m.
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