Dez Wells wore a sly grin as he embraced Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon on the Barclays Center sideline, his name finally introduced before a game as true Terrapin. Simply hearing the public-address announcer boom “Dez Wells” on Friday night was enough, the culmination of a months-long journey of heartbreak, discovery and, finally, clarity.
Just two days earlier, Wells sat in Turgeon’s office and shed tears upon hearing that the NCAA had granted the Xavier transfer the right to play immediately. He had been practicing since coming to College Park in September, competing with teammates until, as Turgeon said, someone finally told the Terps, “No.”
That moment never came. And so here Wells stood, at once pumped and relieved, basking in the glow of the energized Brooklyn crowd and an ESPN television audience. Turgeon told him to calm down, collect his emotions and just play basketball. It all frothed to the surface, though.
“I don’t really show much emotion, but that was the most emotion Coach Turgeon or anyone else has seen for me on the basketball court,” Wells said. “He was happy for me, and I was just happy for what those guys have done for me.”
Married to the unknown ever since Xavier expelled him amid sexual assault allegations that were determined unworthy of prosecution by an Ohio prosecutor, Wells finally found his footing in Maryland’s starting lineup.
Wells, like all Terps not named Alex Len, battled shooting woes in the first half Friday night against Kentucky and finished just 2 of 12 from the field for eight points and four rebounds. But Wells also had four assists and contributed 29 hard minutes, scrapping when the shots weren’t falling, penetrating and kicking in traffic, overcoming a calf cramp that had him limping off the floor.
On one occasion in the second half, as Maryland began to mount its furious 13-0 run that brought the Terps within striking distance of the Wildcats, Wells drove the baseline and reared back for another trademark slam, the kind that made his name a frequent search on YouTube. But the ball got away from him, caroming off the back iron.
After the ball got batted around by other players, Wells found himself two rows deep in the stands, first launched into then twisted among a line of high-paying, seated customers. He couldn’t see from the new-found vantage point, but James Padgett had gathered Wells’s save and drawn a shooting foul for two free throws he later made.
“First game as a Terrapin, it was a great experience to be out there with those guys and play against the defending national champions,” Wells said. “It’s been a surreal moment with everything I’ve been through these past four months.”
Kentucky was among the litany of suitors who lined up to court Wells, but “things got in the way,” effectively closing that door. Not that it mattered for Wells.
“When I took my visit to Maryland, they stole my heart,” he said. “So I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else but Maryland. I just appreciate everything that the people have done for me.”
Wells will undoubtedly do more for the Terps than his modest statistical debut demonstrated. He was somber in the postgame media room, disappointed that Maryland let slip away a 72-69 loss. But ask him about the evening’s gravity, and he grew emotional once again.
“These last 48 hours, it’s been a blessing,” Wells said. “I couldn’t have gotten through it without my family, the guys backing me at Maryland and God. I went through what I went through, and I wouldn’t have anybody backing me but Maryland.”
Some quick thoughts from the season-opening loss:
>> Turgeon said he was pleased overall with point guard Pe’Shon Howard, who ran the offense well but shot 1 for 8 and couldn’t find an open shooter on the Terps’ last-ditch possession. But could freshman Seth Allen be playing his way into the starting rotation? He was a sparkplug off the bench, hitting two key three-pointers in Maryland’s second-half rally, so his energy could be very valuable as a sixth man, even if Howard’s minutes start to wane as a result.
>> Shaq Cleare played a team-low seven minutes after only appearing for 15 minutes in the exhibition against Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Turgeon’s noted that he’s struggled to catch up to the speed of the game, so his minutes will likely grow as well.
>> Charles Mitchell continues to be a monster on the offensive glass. A sizable portion of Maryland’s offensive rebounds came after misfiring on three-pointers that hit the rim and sailed far away, but Mitchell was scrapping underneath with Kentucky’s twin towers and winning the battle, finishing with 10 rebounds (six offensive.)
>> Some quote-dumps. Turgeon on the Terps’ shooting woes in the first half:
“We were fired up. I think the first media timeout we were right there. Even had a lead. Our shot selection was poor. Very poor. I don’t know how many times they said shot-fake and drive it. Because they go after every shot fake. We never did that. As a coach, you just keep trying to get them to do what they’re supposed to do. Little bit of nerves, a lot Kentucky, they play every shot, they come at you and play it, which sometimes with two guys, which is why we got 28 offensive rebounds. The shot selection was the third part. We shot better in the second half, because we slowed it down and executed a little better.”
>> Turgeon on the big stage:
“Wasn’t that just awesome out there? It’s good. If tonight did anything, it energized our fan base. We’ll learn a lot from this stage. Probably what we learned the most, I learned a lot how to coach this team. Every game will be a little different. I learned a lot how we have to play. Hopefully guys will understand we don’t have to shoot in six seconds every time. Keep beating a dead horse with that.”
>> How about this Turgeon quote on Kentucky’s Jarrod Polson, who had 10 points, three assists and zero turnovers. Not bad for a former walk-on who played only 31 minutes all of last season.
“Absolutely zero thinking went into before the game,” Turgeon said. “He subbed at the table, I said, ‘Who’s that?’ Because he hadn’t played. Cal, I’ve been hearing him talk about his point guard situation, we should have known. He was the whole key to the game. Kid gave them confidence, he made the play of the game on the rebound, made the two free throws. Step up and do that in that environment, I don’t even know what year he is. He was good. He was the difference for them.”