With the final seconds whining down and Maryland men’s basketball team clinging on to a one-point lead over Nebraska, the Terps were in dire need of a big defensive stop.
Everyone in Xfinity Center was on their feet while the student section banged against their red seats, as Nebraska guard Cam Mack dribbled the ball down court, hoping to deliver a shot that would upset one of the nation’s best teams.
Mack drove to the rim where he was greeted by Terps’ sophomore Jalen “Stix” Smith, who used his long wingspan to block the go-ahead basket with 1.4 seconds left in the game. Fans cheered as Smith walked to the other end of the court and nailed a free throw that capped Maryland’s 72-70 victory over the Cornhuskers on an eventful Tuesday evening.
“Stix [Jalen Smith], made a big time block,” Turgeon said. “When [Mack] was going down the floor and I saw Stix by the rim, I felt pretty good. I knew he was going to block that shot.”
It was “Stix Night” at the Xfinity Center and some fans were donning glasses that resembled the goggles Smith wears during games. On the night dedicated to one of many things that makes Smith standout, the towering 6-foot-10 forward finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, his seventh straight double-double.
Smith, who has made a strong case for All-American status, was a force in the paint, standing tall over the Nebraska team, who’s tallest player on the court was a 6-foot-9 freshman. Smith took passes from guards Anthony Cowan and delivered dunks that rattled the rim. Smith’s defensive presence, which has been a factor in Maryland’s success, resembled his Baltimore grit.
“He does what it takes to win, and he’s so good defensively,” Turgeon said. “I’m happy for him, he’s playing well.”
The start of the game wasn’t pretty for Maryland and Nebraska. Three-point attempts continuously clanked off the rim as frustrations grew from both sidelines.
Suddenly, Maryland freshman Donta Scott, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds, knocked down a three-pointer in front of Nebraska’s bench that inspired his team to go on a 10-0 scoring run.
“Donta is just relentless,” Smith said. “He does everything you need him to do and helps the team anyway possible. Even if he messes up, he continues to play hard for us.”
Even though Maryland carried a 13-point halftime, one obvious thing still remained: The Terps didn’t respect Nebraska. The Cornhuskers came into Tuesday’s game, sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten after dropping six (now seven) consecutive games. Maryland on the other hand, had been playing its best brand of basketball all season and felt this was the night they could relax.
The Terps, their fans and maybe the media that filled up press row doubted Nebraska’s chances to win. The Cornhuskers used that doubt to their advantage. Nebraska attacked the basket and made open shots, as Maryland’s rigid defense faltered.
Maryland’s lead went from double-digits to two points, and now the question that pondered through everyone’s mind was will the Terps be on the losing end of one of the biggest upsets this season.
“We just were out of it. I mean I can’t explain it. They’re really hard to guard,” Turgeon said. “They got downhill on us, couldn’t figure out the ball screen, got beat off the dribble, close outs weren’t great, transition wasn’t great, rebounding wasn’t great. So, it was just one of those deals. We kept thinking we were going to get it going defensively, because that’s what we do. But we never did.”
With under seven minutes to go in the game, Cowan dished the ball to guard Eric Ayala, who buried a clutch three pointer. Ayala’s shot turned fans’ jaw dropping mouths into screams of joy.
“I mean I’m confident every day, you know every day I go into the gym I think I’m going to shoot the ball pretty well,” Ayala, who finished with 16 points and five assists, said. “Obviously I wanted to feed off of the last game and just tell myself not to go out there forced but just play the game through.”
Two minutes later, Ayala would hit another three-pointer that extended Maryland’s lead to 64-54. There was a sigh of relief, but it didn’t last long. Nebraska would go on another scoring run during the final minutes to cut the deficit to 71-69. Yet, Maryland was able to hang on.
Yes, Maryland won the game. However, the mood during postgame felt as if Nebraska defeated the Terps by 20 points. There wasn’t a smile nor a glare of happiness within the players and coaching staff. It didn’t matter that the Terps remained at the top of the Big Ten. It didn’t matter they won their seventh straight game.
The Terps have bigger goals in mind, and performances like tonight won’t get them to the pinnacle of college basketball.
“It definitely was a weird locker room,” Cowan said. “We really didn’t know whether to celebrate or really kind of be down on ourselves, but at the end of the day it’s the Big Ten.”
“I’m not satisfied at all with that win just because we know what we’re capable of,” Ayala added. “We have to come back and get ready for Michigan State. No mental lapses.”