Maryland’s supporters held their breath as Dez Wells crumpled to the hardwood, twisting his left knee on another steamroll drive through the lane. The whistles blared, signaling a foul and the under-four officials’ timeout. As Wells limped over to the huddle, he collapsed before the folding chairs, grimacing as trainer Matt Charvat rushed to his aid. All it took was a few leg shakes to regain the feeling. Then Wells stepped to the free throw line and sank both attempts.
For 40 minutes, the Wells-led Terrapins chiseled away at ice-cold Duke until finally the Blue Devils shattered in Friday’s ACC tournament quarterfinals. The Greensboro Coliseum was Duke’s home away from home, the site of six straight ACC tournament final appearances. Thanks to a six-day break, the Blue Devils were rested. With Ryan Kelly in the lineup, they were undefeated this season.
With a career-high 30 points, Wells quickly took a hammer to all that in Maryland’s 83-74 win. He’s scored 51 points in two games this week at Greensboro Coliseum, earning the praise of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the coach whose teams Wells grew up idolizing in nearby Raleigh. In Maryland’s second win this season over the Blue Devils, Wells shot 9 for 13 from the field. More importantly, he didn’t miss in 10 free throw attempts, a far cry from the erratic 1-for-5 performance he mustered against Wake Forest on March 2.
“I didn’t forget that and I know he didn’t, either,” Coach Mark Turgeon said as Wells smiled a toothy grin in the adjacent seat. “But we’ve been shooting free throws and dialed in. Pretty focused tonight.”
The second-half letdowns that have marked Maryland’s topsy-turvy season never came. Seth Curry made it a six-point game when he got fouled on a made three-pointer and sank the accompanying free throw. On the next possession, Wells reciprocated by reaching the line himself.
“When people are put in a position where they have to win, a lot of times they elevate, and that’s what Maryland did today,” Krzyzewski said. “They were superb. I could say all the things we did wrong, but to me, they did their things right better than we did our things wrong.”
Minutes later, with Maryland clinging to a 48-46 lead after Pe’Shon Howard made 1 of 2 free throws, Charles Mitchell drew a crucial charge on Mason Plumlee. Shaq Cleare stuck a right hook on the other end, and the Terps were sparked to a 17-8 run.
“Well, we defended well during that stretch,” Turgeon said. “I just thought we kept guarding. Thing that we have had a hard time with is playing with any type of poise. You look at our first possession of the second half, after they scored, we came down, used the clock, got Jake a wide-open three in the corner. We couldn’t have done that three weeks ago. Guys would have dribbled off a knee or shot it or something.”
If Thursday’s win over Wake Forest was a baby step in the right direction, Friday night was a massive leap. Jake Layman, Alex Len, Nick Faust and Seth Allen all had 10 points. Despite missing three three-pointers, Howard posted a five-to-zero assist-to-turnover ratio. But Wells was again the workhorse again, even if his teammates kept things close while he endured a substantial field-goal drought to open the second half.
“Somebody called him a baby LeBron,” Howard said of Wells. “It looked similar. Everyone knows Dez is almost unstoppable going to the hole. Transition, whenever he gets ahead,. He’s really good at finishing under control. Duke gives you a lot of lanes to drive, they usually like to step up and take charges, but he’s usually good at sliding to the left or right and avoiding charges. He’s the type of player that can usually have a good game against Duke, because that’s how their aggressive style is, if he’s in control and can execute.”
Aside from Olivier Hanlan’s freshman-record 41 points in Boston College’s opener, Wells has been the tournament’s most dominant player thus far, shooting 69.6 percent from the field (16 for 23) across both games.
“Oh man. Dez was great,” freshman Shaq Cleare said. “He knocked down big shots for us, made big free throws, just took the game over himself. He did it with us, but it was mostly on him. He’s a humble guy. He ain’t really going to praise himself. But he’s a great player. He’s the pulse of his team. Once he goes, the team goes. And that’s exactly what we did tonight to get a W.”