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Jalen Smith stays calm in impressive debut and other takeaways from Maryland's basketball opener

Maryland freshman Jalen Smith acknowledged that the first few minutes of his college debut in Tuesday night’s season-opener against Delaware were “very nerve-racking, a lot of butterflies.”

Smith credited the seniors on the team — forward Ivan Bender and walk-on guard Andrew Terrell — for helping him remain calm “and keeping me focused.”

It was apparent at the end of an unexpectedly and unnecessarily close 73-67 win over the Blue Hens that Smith had steadied his nerves by game’s end.

After the Terps saw what had been a 17-point lead at halftime and what became a 22-point lead early in the second half nearly erased, Smith made plays at both ends of the court to preserve what was left of the lead.

Smith finished with team-highs of 19 points and 13 rebounds to go along with two blocks, the most impressive debut by a Maryland big man since Alex Len had 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks against Albany in 2011.

Smith’s block on Delaware guard Kevin Anderson with 1:07 remaining and the Terps ahead by four points, 71-67, was the biggest play he made. Given that sophomore center Bruno Fernando had fouled out with 3:44 left, Smith’s presence was needed.

“My man, No. 5 [Eric Carter] moved out of the lane and I knew I had to protect it, because he was going to have a wide-open driving lane, so I jumped up,” Smith said. “I happened to get it.”

After former Mount Saint Joseph teammate Darryl Morsell missed a 3-point shot, Smith challenged Delaware forward Jacob Cushing in the lane with 16 seconds left. Junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. got the rebound and was fouled, making both free throws.

Asked if the nerves resurfaced late in the game as the big lead evaporated, Smith said, “Shockingly no. I’d say my mood stepped up, because I was more focused [at the end].”

Smith and some of his young teammates did show some nerves at the end, including missing four of six free throws in one stretch (with Smith missing three of four after making his first two) and continually front-rimming or simply clanking 3-point tries.

The Terps finished the game 21-for-30 from the free throw line and 2-for-19 on 3-pointers, including missing all eight they took in the second half. Smith hit eight of 15 from the field — showing versatility both in facing the basket and posting up.

“I was pretty much playing whatever role my team needed me, if they needed me on the defensive end or the offensive end, I was just there and doing what coach said to,” Smith said.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

1. Turgeon has to develop a deeper bench.

One of the big problems last season was the number of minutes Maryland’s starters had to play.

Against Delaware, three Terps played more than 30 minutes, including Smith (31) and fellow freshman Aaron Wiggins (36). Freshman guard Eric Ayala played 28 minutes off the bench.

Conversely, Bender and redshirt sophomore forward Joshua Tomaic played only four minutes each, with freshman forward Ricky Lindo Jr. getting 10 and freshman guard Serrel Smith Jr. playing nine.

“I played guys too much tonight,” Turgeon said. “Darryl was in foul trouble a lot of this game. They were small, which made it hard for us to play a bigger lineup. … Our bench has got to be a little bit deeper than it was tonight and hopefully that will happen as we move forward.”

2. Wiggins showed some versatility.

Even though no Terp shot the ball well from outside, Wiggins had a particularly tough night.

A player former Maryland point guard Keith Gatlin called the best shooter he coached on the high school level in North Carolina, Wiggins was 1-for-8 overall, including 1-for-6 on 3s.

But the 6-foot-6 Wiggins rebounded well on the defensive boards — getting seven — and also was active both in the man-to-man defense as well when the Terps pressed, picking up five steals.

Still, the player who Turgeon is counting on most to fill the void left by Kevin Huerter’s departure is going to be needed to hit open shots, especially when teams double team Fernando or Smith.

“I thought Aaron was good,” Turgeon said. “At the end, he’s got to step up and shoot it, that’s what he’s out there for. I thought defensively he was really good.”

3. Fernando needs more touches.

Even before he got into foul trouble, Fernando was not as much a factor as he should have been. It was obvious from the start that the Blue Hens couldn’t stop the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Angolan.

Early on, the Terps were settling too often for 3-point shots and either not looking to get the ball inside or firing it up after Fernando passed out of the post.

Fernando not only showed that he is too strong for most players guarding him — that will also be true in the Big Ten — but he has become a better facilitator, including a nice pass to Smith.

Despite just playing 19 minutes because of foul trouble, Fernando finished with 15 points, hitting all six shots he took (five dunks and a layup) to go along with four rebounds and three blocked shots.

“I felt bad for Bruno, his energy was terrific, his leadership was great, for him to get in foul trouble was disappointing, but ‘Stix’ [Smith’s nickname] went in there and made some big plays late,” Turgeon said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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