ST THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands – The packed Paradise Jam schedule had condensed warmups into a half-hour window, so while his Maryland men’s basketball teammates progressed through positional drills and individual stretching, Dez Wells dribbled alone. Under the supervision of graduate assistant Steve Asher, Wells worked one hand, then both hands, then his crossover, then between the legs. Coach Mark Turgeon had challenged the junior with becoming a better point guard, a crisper decision-maker and a more risk-adverse leader, so here was his opportunity to make things right.
“Just go out there and play and make the easy plays, hitting the open guys,” Wells said later. “It’s just basketball. Don’t overthink it. Just go out there and do what I love and play the game.”
During a 56-52 win over Providence in Monday night’s title game, no Maryland player was better than Wells. His 13 points tied with Evan Smotrycz for the team high, earned him an all-tournament backpack and the MVP basketball. Hampered by early foul trouble and limited to just nine minutes before halftime, Wells brought fresh legs to the stretch run, providing the team’s only real offense in the night’s waning minutes.
At least, so Turgeon thought.
“I was going to be tired regardless,” Wells said as the clock hit 2 a.m. and his teammates celebrated down the hall. “I didn’t care about that. I was tired. Yeah, I was tired. But I pushed through it, just like any other guy would have done who wants to win the game. We all had it together and we all did it together.”
Aggressively reluctant to accept praise for himself, Wells deflected to his teammates, but they knew a 19-point lead might have turned into a demoralizing loss without him. After Varun Ram hit a three-pointer that put the Terps up 44-25 with 12 minutes 49 seconds left, the Terps went five full minutes without a field goal.
At that moment, Wells switched his internal setting and entered takeover mode, the type of game-changing bursts Maryland fans have grown accustomed to since he transferred from Xavier last summer. Predicting their arrivals has become easy, and the script always plays out in similar fashion: With the Terps struggling, Wells hunkers down, demands the basketball, streaks down the floor and makes a move.
“We were really struggling,” Turgeon said. “We just could not score. We’ve got to get our low-post game better. Normally when you can’t make shots you go to your low-post and we couldn’t score in there either.”
This time, Wells delivered two shots that the box score classified as “layups,” but wasn’t entirely accurate. They were more mid-range floaters, as Wells penetrated, stopped and rose up before the Friars defense could react appropriately. Maryland was back in front 48-39, with enough separation to hang on as the Friars soon drew even closer.
“Huge,” Smotrycz said of those shots. “Those are just big buckets. We were struggling for a while, they were going for a while, and we were struggling to hold them. Just timely buckets were real big.”
Through four games, Wells had made 19 of 20 free throws, marked improvement for someone whose lifetime percentage entering this season was less than 70 percent. But after he struggled there during the semifinals against Northern Iowa, missing 4 of 6 attempts, he made two with 22 seconds left that put Maryland up 55-51.
“I just knew I had to make something happen,” he said. “Didn’t have to be just me scoring the ball. I had to make something happen for my team so we could help stop the momentum and stop the bleeding.”
Even more noticeably, Wells curbed his turnover rate on the island. After earning public criticism from Turgeon after committing six turnovers against Connecticut, three against Oregon State and four against Marist, Wells committed just one in each of the past two games.
Freshman Roddy Peters may be Maryland’s best long-term point guard option until Seth Allen returns from his broken foot, if only because Wells has proven himself so dangerous from the wing, but as he embraced teammates and smiled with Turgeon during the postgame celebration, it became clear that Wells, much like the Terps at large, took a step in the right direction here.