ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Shaquille Cleare rammed backward into his defender and called for the basketball. “Oh yeah,” the Maryland center told Dez Wells. “Oh yeah. Oh yeah.” At first, Wells bypassed Cleare. The passing lane was obstructed, so instead he looked elsewhere. Cleare repositioned himself, and again called for the ball.
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah.”
Wells relented. Cleare caught the pass with one hand and brought it to his chest with a loud thwack. He dribbled, spun right and lofted a soft left-handed hook shot. Swish.
Moments like these have been rare for Cleare during his second season at Maryland. He has started all four games this season, but rarely discovered confidence like he did during Friday afternoon’s 68-43 win over Marist at the Paradise Jam. Cleare played 19 minutes, hit all four of his field goals, grabbed five rebounds and committed just two fouls. It’s hardly the glimmering line many fans imagined when he committed as the highest-rated member of Coach Mark Turgeon’s class of 2014, yet it represents a step forward for someone who’s struggled to attain any semblance of consistently positive production.
“Obviously since the season started,” Turgeon said, when asked if Cleare’s game was the best he’s played. “Maybe it was the island deal. We’ll see. I was really happy for him. He was real aggressive. That big kid’s good for them. First-team all-league player. I thought Shaq did a nice job on him throughout the game. Kind of wore the kid down.”
Indeed, third-team all-MAAC selection Adam Kemp attempted just five field goals, and he quickly learned that backing down Cleare gets nowhere. Throughout the preseason, Cleare insisted his ailing back – subject to spasms that sidelined him for Maryland’s summer tour to his native Bahamas – had healed. But his rehabilitation is still clearly a work in progress, and even if Cleare felt 100 percent, his game still lagged behind because of the significant time away.
“I hadn’t played in six, seven months,” he revealed Friday. “I’m getting back slowly.”
Turgeon stuck with Cleare in the starting lineup, hoping the vote of confidence would inject some life into the center. The third-year coach always praises Cleare’s work ethic during media sessions, but until Friday it hadn’t translated into games.
“I’ve been working hard in practice,” Cleare said. “Just had to get over the hump. Coach is always saying, ‘I know you’re a little frustrated right now, you’re not scoring the way you’re capable of, just continue to work hard, things will start dropping.’ That’s what happened tonight.”
A healthy and productive Cleare will help shore up Maryland’s front-court depth, which until Friday night consisted of forward Charles Mitchell’s bench energy and little else. Cleare surely proved enough to justify remaining in the lineup for Sunday’s semifinals game against Northern Iowa, and Turgeon seems to like the spark Mitchell can provide in a reserve role.
“We need Shaq to play well, and he will play well for us,” guard Varun Ram said. “Definitely happy for him to play big for us. He was such a dominant player in high school. He’s yet to really show what he can do. Everyone knows he can be such a good player. We’re just waiting for his game to grow up.”
Said Jake Layman: “He works hard all the time. He really showed it. He was knocking his shots down, when guys were doubling him he made great passes. I think this will help his game a lot.”
>> Evan Smotrycz came off the bench for the first time this season, which meant Roddy Peters received his second career start alongside Wells, Cleare, Layman and Nick Faust. Turgeon anticipated another lineup change for Sunday night’s game against Northern Iowa, but declined to name specifics.
“I took Evan out because he just didn’t play well against Oregon State,” Turgeon said. “We decided after watching film that we needed to make a change, and he was it. That was our decision we made, and we stuck with it.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do Sunday. We’re going to do something different. I’m going to try to play the guys who are playing the best. I do know this: If Dez is going to play some point, he’s got to play better at point than he did tonight.”
>> Wells got into early foul trouble and finished with nine points, three rebounds, two assists and two turnovers. Over four games, his scoring totals have fluctuated drastically, but he’s still averaging 12.3 points per game despite shooting 37.8 percent from the field. The junior, however, has demonstrated tremendous improvement from the free throw line. After entering the season as a sub-70 percent shooter, he is 19 for 20 and 12 for 12 over the past two games.
>> Mitchell, on the other hand, has struggled at the foul line. He’s attempted 21 free throws and made just five (23.8 percent), and was 2 for 9 against Marist. Over the past three games, he’s 3 for 17.
>> Peters had a relatively quiet game against Marist, having three driving layups blocked and finishing 2 for 8 from the field. But he made all four free-throw attempts and banked in a garbage-time three-pointer, his first from distance this season.
“He played well,” Turgeon said. “He goes in fifth gear too many times. He’s got to be a little smarter with that, but he’s getting better. He’s really getting better defensively.”