Dez Wells felt confident, from years of practice, from the way he had manhandled Miami after halftime, from the absence of micromanagement from the sideline. Maryland wanted Wells to have the basketball late in Wednesday night’s game. They wanted him to go win the game and keep the team from spiraling further.
“Give me the ball,” Wells thought to himself. “Just give me the ball.”
Even as they grew sloppy and saw their 10-point lead collapse in less than two minutes, the Terrapins had planned for this. During previous timeouts, Coach Mark Turgeon had mentioned late-game strategy, and this was one of the plays everyone discussed. A simple isolation. Wells alone, between midcourt and the three-point line, staring down his defender, ready to go.
If the Terps can turn their disappointment year around, if they can make something out of a frustrating campaign, then what happened next might become the stuff of legends. The bucket Wells sank with 5.9 seconds left, giving Maryland a 74-71 victory, was equal parts foolhardy and gutsy. After all, he had made just one three-pointer over the past six games and was so effective attacking the basket, turning the Hurricanes into helpless observers. Why pull up? Why shoot over a defender?
The better question, in hindsight: Why not?
“If I would have missed that shot, guys would have killed me about it and said it was a bad shot, blah, blah, blah,” he said. “But big-time players make big-time plays. I’m not a big-time player yet, but this is a step in the right direction.”
The Terps became the first ACC team to top 70 points against the methodical Hurricanes and somehow summoned their best motion on offense against a zone defense. Their late letdown was indeed swift and ugly – Rion Brown made seven free throws in three possessions, including three when he was fouled behind the arc by Nick Faust – but at this stage in the season, having sunk below .500 in league play, Maryland needed to milk every last bit of positivity from Wednesday night.
Later, the players reflected on a meaningless October afternoon, when the expectations were high and the season was still promising because it hadn’t yet begun. In a secret scrimmage against Villanova, now a top 10 team, Wells also hit the game-winning three-pointer from almost the exact same spot, as his maturation from a sophomore transfer into the unquestioned leader took form.
Forward Evan Smotrycz, who scored an efficient 15 points on seven shots, thought about that moment when Wells stopped and rose over guard Garrius Adams. By that point, Smotrycz’s legs had grown heavy and he was quietly hoping to avoid overtime. He looked for Wells to drive to the hoop, to put some pressure on Miami and perhaps win it from the free throw line, but when Smotrycz saw Wells approach the point from which he beat Villanova, he knew everything would be fine.
“I was hoping he would drive it, but,” Smotrycz said, exhaling in awe, “it’s just a big-time shot.”
Said Jake Layman: “We knew we were going to win. I knew he was going to hit it at the end. He’s done it before for us. He’s hit that big shot. We all trusted him and he came through.”
After a scoreless, shot-less, foul-riddled, five-minute first half, Wells was nearly perfect after intermission. He finished with 21 points in 24 minutes on seven field goal attempts, all successful, and hit all six free throw attempts for good measure. With Miami threatening to come back in the second half, long before all the crunch-time heroics, Wells was pulling up for a mid-range jumper that swished. He was coming, seemingly, out of nowhere for a lob layup in transition. Then he backed down his defender along the left baseline, twirled around and banked in the fadeaway shot. That’s when the Terps knew Wells had entered takeover mode. That’s when they knew the game was his.
“Every time,” Layman said, when asked if Maryland wanted Wells shooting in late-game situations. “Every time.”