LINCOLN, NEB. — After he delivered a crushing jumper that sent Pinnacle Bank Arena into a deafening silence, Maryland’s Dez Wells jubilantly walked back to his huddle to a mob of adoring teammates. There was simply no reason to rush or get antsy at any point on Sunday in the regular season finale against Nebraska, as Maryland had seen this so many times before. It once again trailed inside a foreign arena in the second half, and it once again watched Wells transcend another hostile environment late.
With his team clinging to a one-point lead in the final minute, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon called a timeout and designed a play for Wells, giving him the option to pass on a back-door cut. But Turgeon knew the senior forward wasn’t going to give it up. There were only four ticks remaining on the shot clock when Wells hit the 17-footer with nine seconds left, clinching a 64-61 win and giving Maryland one last dramatic win to pin to its NCAA tournament résumé.
“He just drew up a play, like a last-second kind of play,” Wells said. “He told me, ‘Just make a play.’ ”
The victory was only sealed after Nebraska’s Shavon Shields missed a potential game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer, and Wells and his teammates celebrated their 26th regular season win — the most in school history.
Wells finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds and Melo Trimble had 21 points for Maryland (26-5, 14-4 Big Ten), which continued to pick up traction ahead of next week’s Big Ten tournament. The Terrapins will meet the winner of Thursday night’s second-round game between Northwestern and Indiana in a quarterfinal on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
Maryland had learned on Saturday that it could set a school record for regular season wins in its first trip to Lincoln, and as if it needed another incentive to play, Turgeon said the pursuit of that milestone drove his group all night. He used it as leverage with his players, telling them they were 20 minutes away. Then he told them they were 10 minutes away. Then one possession.
“And of course,” he added, “we had the best player on the floor in Dez Wells.”
Wells, who had saved Maryland with a double-double performance against Rutgers earlier in the week, finished 6 for 14 from the field and saved his most dramatic basket for last.
Maryland was “a mess” heading into the game, Turgeon said — and he was worried about his team’s motivation this week before he learned of the record Saturday. There was a litter of other potential problems. Center Michal Cekovsky was going to make his first appearance in two games since injuring his knee last week. Turgeon wasn’t sure if Evan Smotrycz was going to play because of a knee issue. And Jake Layman was battling flu-like symptoms.
“It was tough. When it comes down to it, why would I ever want to miss this game?” said Layman, who had 11 points. “The chance for us to go 26-5, to make history at Maryland, there’s no chance I was going to miss this game.”
Turgeon had to get creative with his rotation early in the game to navigate Maryland’s foul trouble. Trimble picked up his second foul just seven minutes in, and fellow starter Richaud Pack left the game with his second foul about five minutes later. Still needing Trimble’s offense during certain stretches late in the half, Turgeon rotated the freshman into the game exclusively for offensive possessions with reserve Varun Ram. Trimble finished the first half with a team-high nine points in just nine minutes as Maryland held a 31-29 lead at halftime.
Wells was the rock for a rotation in flux for much of the first 20 minutes — his best sequence came after drawing a charge on Shields and tying the game at 17 with a three-point play on the ensuing possession — and he again tried to put the team on his back after it fell behind early in the second half.
Aided by a Turgeon technical foul early in the second half, Nebraska used a 9-0 run to re-energize its senior day crowd and take a 40-34 lead. But Wells, who had entered the night averaging 17.7 points over his last 10 games, never let his emotions waver. He answered with a pair of buckets, including a vicious dunk after bullying his way through the lane — and Trimble pulled Maryland within two on a layup with about 14 minutes to play.
“We just matched their energy and just played,” Trimble said.
After Nebraska took a 48-43 advantage, Trimble took over the game, keying a 10-0 run with a string of brilliant plays. He threaded the needle to set up a dunk from Cekovsky, then delivered a three-pointer. After two free throws, Trimble assisted on another three-pointer from Layman to open up a 53-48 lead with just over nine minutes remaining.
Trimble again silenced the crowd with a runner with just over five minutes remaining, then added an assist to Wells on the next possession to push the lead to 59-53. Nebraska looked to make one final push after pulling within 61-57 with less than two minutes remaining. Shields, who finished with 26 points, snuck into the lane and netted a runner before getting fouled with less than a minute left, then added a free throw to make it 62-61.
After Maryland’s offense stalled on the ensuing possession, Turgeon called a timeout with the shot clock running down. Wells came out of the break and ran to the perimeter before knocking down the jumper with a defender in his face, and after Shields missed a last-chance three, Maryland celebrated its 10th win by six points or fewer this season.
“It’s just natural. It’s just become natural to me,” Wells said. “I just keep my confidence. If I don’t believe I’m going to make the shot, I don’t take it.”