(courtesy Paradise Jam)

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands – The evening started terribly for the two Maryland basketball players about to enjoy their best games of the season. On the first possession, Evan Smotrycz missed a short baby hook. On the second, Nick Faust, his classmate and roommate, missed a three-point attempt from the left wing. On the third, Faust missed a tomahawk dunk, cocking the basketball behind his head before it caromed off the rim. Then Faust threw a bad inbounds pass for a turnover. Then Smotrycz let a pass slip through his hands.

By the end of the Terrapins’ 80-66 victory over Northern Iowa that moved them into the Paradise Jam final, Smotrycz and Faust had scored 20 and 17 points, respectively, and were laughing away the night with boxes of Pizza Hut in hand outside the team locker room. That rough start was long gone, and as the other semifinal played out just down the hall, the pair of juniors had been fantastic.

“Our guys stepped up tonight,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “They were ready to play.”

Two days ago, Turgeon relegated Smotrycz to a reserve role because of the Michigan transfer’s stateside performance against Oregon State. Smotrycz struggled off the bench during the Paradise Jam opener against Marist, scoring a season-low four points on three field-goal attempts and grabbing one rebound while committing four fouls.

“Coach just said he was trying it out, trying to get us started quicker,” Smotrycz said. “I was just trying to play. I didn’t play that well, but was able to bounce back.”

Still “working the rust off, getting back into game shape” after sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, Smotrycz keyed several second-half rallies that helped the Terps keep distance with the pesky Panthers. He tied his career high with 20 points, hitting 3 of 6 three-point attempts, and tied a season high with nine rebounds.

“I was just glad he played well,” Turgeon said. “That’s the Evan we thought we were getting when we recruited him. He’s hard to guard. He can shoot it, he can drive it, he can pass it. He played smart defensively and he played smart on offense. It’s good.”

Challenged by Turgeon this summer to become Maryland’s best perimeter defender, Faust responded Sunday with his most complete effort since arriving in College Park two years ago. He scored 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting and, save taking several ill-advised three-point shots early in the shot clock and once earning an offensive charge on an out-of-control drive, was instrumental in challenging Northern Iowa’s shooters and containing lane penetration.

“I don’t know if it’s his best game since he’s been to Maryland, but it’s close,” Turgeon said. “He made some shots, he made good decisions … Defensively he really locked in, tried to guard s best he could. He was good. Nick was really good. He’s growing up, maturing.”

Early in the second half, after Maryland entered intermission 0 for 8 on three-pointers, both Faust and Smotrycz hit deep shots that extended the lead to eight points. Once a 7-0 Panthers run made it 61-59, Faust found Jake Layman for an alley-oop dunk off a high backdoor screen. The next possession, Faust swiped his third steal and Smotrycz’s tipped in Layman’s miss. Suddenly, the lead was seven points and the Terps were in control.

“I told him after the game, that’s the best game he’s ever played,” Smotrycz said of Faust. “I don’t even care, I haven’t even seen him play all the games, but in my opinion he just played his butt off. I think coach agreed with me. Gave us a real boost early in the second half.”