After Escaping Nebraska; Maryland Trips To Michigan State Next
It was a fitting end to a game in which Terps’ sophomore forward Jalen “Stix” Smith was honored with a “Stix Night.”
The first 500 Maryland students to arrive at Tuesday night’s game against Nebraska received their very own “Stix Specs” so that they could imitate their favorite four-eyed forward. The next 2,000 students were given “Glow Stix” as a nod to the Baltimore native who was averaging 15.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game entering the matchup with the Cornhuskers.
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Smith didn’t disappoint.
After the Terps blew numerous double-digit leads throughout the game against an inferior opponent, it took heroics by Smith in the final possession of the game for No. 9 Maryland (20-4, 10-3 Big Ten) to send Nebraska (7-17, 2-11) packing with a 72-70 loss at Xfinity Center.
After both Anthony Cowan Jr. and Eric Ayala missed the front end of one-and-ones from the free throw line in the last 22 seconds of the game, the final possession belonged to the Cornhuskers and the ball was in the hands of Nebraska’s leading scorer Cam Mack.
Mack, despite being a 58.4 percent free throw shooter on the season, had just hit two big shots from the charity stripe to make it a one-point game. After Cowan missed his first attempt from the line on the next possession, Mack took the ball up court and found a lane to drive. But he was met by Smith, who picked up his first block of the game at the perfect time, swatting Mack’s layup attempt and securing the rebound after with just 0.7 seconds left on the clock.
It was a close call in an obvious “trap game” situation, but Maryland was able to pull it out and win its seventh straight, moving to 14-0 at home on the season with a road test against Michigan State ahead this weekend.
Smith finished with a team-high 16 points and 13 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season and seventh straight. Smith was one of three Terps to record double-doubles on the night, a feat that had not been accomplished by any Maryland team since 2001.
Cowan also stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points and 10 assists, while freshman forward Donta Scott continued to show vast improvement with 10 points and 10 rebounds. It was the first double-double of Scott’s collegiate career.
Like Smith, Ayala also scored 16, which was a season-high for the sophomore guard. Despite hitting a bit of a scoring slump throughout the months of December and January, Ayala has now recorded back-to-back games scoring in double figures, which marks the first time he has done so since wins over Temple and Harvard in the Orlando Invitational back on Nov. 28-29.
Junior guard Darryl Morsell contributed nine points of his own, hitting a big three-pointer with just over a minute to go to extend Maryland’s narrow lead.
But despite receiving solid scoring efforts from all of its starters, Maryland couldn’t put Nebraska — a team that ranks 135th in adjusted offensive efficiency — away.
Poor defense and sloppiness with the ball on offense were the two biggest contributors. The Terps showed good ball movement at times, dishing out 20 assists on 25 made field goals, but they also turned the ball over 17 times against the Cornhuskers.
Maryland also seemingly stopped playing defense in the second half besides a few steals by the Terps’ guards when head coach Mark Turgeon decided to switch to a 3-2 zone.
Nebraska shot just 27 percent from the field in the first half and couldn’t get the ball inside at all. But that number quickly jumped to 41 percent by the end of the game thanks to some offensive adjustments by Cornhuskers’ head coach Frank Hoiberg.
Nebraska also rebounded much better in the second half, closing a minus-seven rebound margin at halftime to just minus-one by game’s end.
The Cornhuskers’ leading scorers on the night were senior guard Haanif Cheatham, who had a game-high 20 points, sophomore wing Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who netted 15, and senior forward Matej Kavas, who had 11 off the bench.
Despite moving to 14-0 at home and 14-0 in games in which they lead at halftime this season, as well as notching three double-doubles on the same night for the first time in 19 years, perhaps the Terps’ greatest milestone on Tuesday night belonged to their coach.
Turgeon recorded his 200th win as Maryland’s head coach and became the second-fastest to do so only behind the legendary Lefty Driesell.
Now that Maryland survived the trap, it has a tall task ahead as the Terps head to East Lansing to take on a Michigan State squad that was the preseason No. 1 overall team in the country.
The Spartans have struggled a bit of late, losing three of their last four outings, even falling out of the latest AP Poll completely. But they seem to have righted the ship Tuesday night with a big win on the road against a dangerous Illinois team — a team Maryland also defeated in Champaign just last week.
Saturday night’s game between the Terps and Spartans will be the first of two games between these two elite Big Ten programs this season, the second coming Feb. 29 in College Park.
As it has been for years, Michigan State is led by point guard Cassius Winston, who has been in the conversation for the Naismith Award all season long. Winston is averaging 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game for the Spartans this year. He’s coming off of a 12-point outing against Illinois after scoring 20 or more points in the three games prior.
Junior forward Xavier Tillman is also a force to be reckoned with for Michigan State. Tillman averages 13.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. Smith has been playing at an elite level for over a month, but Tillman will give him everything he can handle in the post on Saturday night.
Per usual, the Spartans are a deep team under head coach Tom Izzo. Michigan State currently has nine players that average double-digit minutes. Maryland’s lack of depth could be its biggest downfall in this matchup, but if the Terps’ top six or seven in the rotation bring their A-game, it shouldn’t be the deciding factor.
Michigan State ranks inside the top 20 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom, which is typically a strong sign of a championship contender. The Spartans can go cold shooting sometimes, so Maryland’s No. 5 ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency will be key for the Terps.
ESPN’s College GameDay will be on site for this matchup, which adds to this game’s intrigue. The Terps and Spartans are scheduled to tip off at 6 p.m.
Pat has been covering sports in the DMV area since 2012. He is a former Washington Redskins beat reporter for PressBoxDC.com and has been covering University of Maryland football and basketball recruiting and daily beats for Rivals.com's Terrapin Sports Report since 2013. Pat graduated from College Park with his master's degree in journalism and has received bylines in publications such as USA TODAY Sports, The Philadelphia Inquirer, SB Nation, and Yahoo! Sports. A Philadelphia native, Pat enjoys fishing, golfing, and playing fantasy sports when he's not covering or watching a game.