Evan Smotrycz left the building like he had done after so many Maryland losses, trudging to the team bus past reporters, silent with his ears guarded by headphones, eyes offering a blank gaze. Monday night had begun with such promise, but when you miss nine straight shots, including two that could have vaulted your team back into the game at Virginia, sometimes your body gets sapped of feeling.
“He just got down on himself,” Terrapins guard Dez Wells said. “Like any regular person would.”
For some time Monday night, Smotrycz was soaring. He started by hitting 3 of 4 shots, including two three-pointers. When Akil Mitchell, a contender for ACC defensive player of the year, sagged off Smotrycz, he hit from deep. When Mitchell pressed up, Smotrycz used his cunning to attack the lane, hitting a nifty runner that began when Smotrycz nudged Mitchell with his head, creating space like a love-struck puppy.
“I knew he was catching and shooting it, but he’s also really crafty,” Mitchell said later. “He’s pretty quick and he got me on a couple quick moves early. I just had to re-adjust. I don’t think I’ve ever guarded him before. It was kind of a learning curve.”
Yet as the night dragged on, the Terrapins needed Smotrycz more and more. Teammate Jake Layman was dealing with blurred vision, the result of getting poked in the eye, and he passed up shots because he couldn’t see the basket. Point guard Seth Allen had also plummeted back to earth following his 32-point game against Florida State. His shot wasn’t falling, either.
Everything about the way Smotrycz began the 61-53 loss to the Cavaliers represented the diverse skill set he brought to Maryland as a transfer two summers ago. He atoned for the two air-ball misses vs. the Seminoles, when he matched his season low with only four points. His sheer presence stretched the floor, keeping Mitchell’s attention while Allen burned London Perrantes off the dribble.
“He was hitting early on,” guard Nick Faust said. “Then he had to sit out due to foul trouble, so I think that’s where he lost his feel for the game.”
When Smotrycz returned to the court, his first shot missed. Then the second. Then suddenly, as the Terps were left dissecting the aftermath of another road loss, Smotrycz had missed nine straight. He had watched a three-pointer circle the rim before bouncing out, which would have brought Maryland back to within one of the No. 17 Cavaliers. He had missed another three-pointer on the ensuing possession, and looked so forlorn walking down the floor that Wells needed to slap him on the chest as if to say: “Hey, wake up. It’ll be okay.”
“I’m not a shooter so I don’t know how it feels when you make a shot or miss one or get in a shooting slump,” Wells said. “I told him you can’t have your head down. We need you to be in the game all the time. Just trying to keep his confidence up. Regardless of how many shots you miss. If you miss 99 shots out of 100, that one shot can win the game. You have to have that confidence and be ready at any given time in the game.”
In 31 minutes against Virginia, Smotrycz finished with eight points. He made 3 of 14 shots, including 2 of 9 on three-pointers. He averaged 0.66 points per possession, according to Kenpom.com, which was his second-lowest rate of the season, behind only Florida State two days before, and seemed to leave with significantly lower morale than when he entered John Paul Jones Arena.
“You know how many shots I’ve missed?” Wells said. “You just have to move onto the next shot, have the mentality that the next one is going in. That can’t affect your psyche. You have to be mentally strong.”
Smotrycz has started all but one game this season, so chances are he remains in the starting lineup Saturday against No. 8 Duke as Coach Mark Turgeon hopes he can provide something similar to what former Blue Devils stretch-four Ryan Kelly did last season. And when asked whether he was concerned about Smotrycz’s confidence given his 3-of-18 shooting over the past two games, Turgeon was blunt.
“No, he’s got to be tough enough to make the next one,” he said. “Got to have a short memory and make the next one. We all love that he was shooting it. We all loved it. I called a play for him the one went in and out. The next one was wide open. That’s all we can ask for. We got good looks.”