Trailing 71-70 with five seconds remaining, Nebraska point guard Cam Mack attacked the rim with a chance to steal an enormous upset at Maryland. Instead, Mack was met at the rim by center Jalen Smith, who rose up and blocked the potential game-winner to seal Maryland’s 20th win of the season and seventh in a row. His only block of the night, “Stix” stepped up in an important moment once again, saving Maryland from avoiding the upset in a nail-biting 72-70 win.
“Stix has been terrific, I knew he was going to block that shot,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “I don’t know if you guys did or not, but I did.”
On “Stix Night” at the Xfinity Center with students wearing his rec specs, Smith controlled the paint in the first half with nine points and ten rebounds — en route to his seventh consecutive double-double. Freshman forward Donta Scott was also excellent in the first half with seven points and four rebounds, setting up his first career double-double.
With Jalen Smith’s ability as a premier rim protector, Nebraska seemed hesitant to attack the basket in the first half, relying on perimeter shooting. That strategy proved ineffective as the Cornhuskers went 3-20 from behind the arc in the first half.
“We talked about how selective we needed to be at the rim because of Jalen Smith’s ability to protect the rim,” Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Senior Anthony Cowan Jr. was also impactful in the opening 20 minutes, tallying 11 points, nine of which came at the line. Throughout the first half, Cowan demonstrated his high basketball IQ — baiting the Cornhusker defenders into fouls on two three-point attempts. Led by Cowan and Smith, Maryland held a seemingly commanding 38-25 lead at the half, with a decisive 25-18 rebounding advantage.
However, in the second half, Maryland’s defense uncharacteristically struggled allowing easy opportunities for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s second-half adjustments on the glass played a pivotal part in their comeback. Despite their height disadvantage, Nebraska simply outhustled Maryland.
“We got real lackadaisical in the second half, me especially,” Jalen Smith said. “That’s just something that we got to fix in the film making sure we figure out what we did wrong.”
In the opening five minutes of the second half, Nebraska found its groove offensively, scoring 15 points. After settling for perimeter opportunities on most possessions in the first half, Nebraska began to find success attacking the basket. While the Cornhuskers were running an efficient offense, the Terps defensive intensity wasn’t present. On several occasions, Maryland was beat backdoor in one-on-one matchups.
Nebraska’s offense found a rhythm once again later in the second half. With 8:07 remaining, Haanif Cheatham drilled an open three from the right-wing to cut Maryland’s lead to four. On the ensuing possession, Jervay Green finished a transition layup, as an angry Turgeon called timeout.
Recognizing more energy was needed, Maryland bounced back out of the interlude playing its best three minutes of the game. During that stretch, Maryland brought what was missing for much of the second half: heightened intensity on both ends of the floor. Guard Eric Ayala confidently knocked down two pivotal threes, each on the feed from Cowan, extending the lead to 64-54 with 4:45 remaining.
Like they did all-night-long, Nebraska bounced right-back with a 7-2 run, cutting the deficit to 66-61 with 2:22 remaining. During those chaotic final two and a half minutes, Maryland turned the ball over and missed free throws, a rarity over the last month in late-game situations. Those mistakes afforded the Cornhuskers the ability to retake the lead, but “Stix’s” timely defensive play saved the day.
On a night where Maryland made uncharacteristic mistakes down the stretch, the Terps still found a way to win; with three players posting a double-double in the same game for the first time since February 2001.
“It’s still a win,” Jalen Smith said. “In the Big Ten, every win is important. But, yeah, we know that we can play better than what we played, and that’s just our main emphasis.”