If any Maryland fans inside Xfinity Center were somehow unsure whether Bruno Fernando had indeed returned for his sophomore season with the Terrapins, he quickly reminded them Tuesday. And if anyone doubted the role freshman Jalen Smith could have on this team, he immediately showed off his potential.
But despite the flashy performances from the pair of 6-foot-10 forwards, Maryland struggled late and just barely survived its season opener against Delaware.
Over and over, Fernando’s dunks sparked a roar inside the arena, and he and Smith led the Terrapins to a 73-67 win. Maryland had a 22-point lead with just under 15 minutes to go, but the Terps struggled offensively in the second half and allowed Delaware to trim its deficit to as little as three points with about one minute left.
Fernando, who tested the waters at the NBA draft combine this spring, scored 15 points on 6-for-6 shooting against the Blue Hens as he shared the frontcourt with Smith, a five-star recruit from Baltimore. Smith recorded a double-double in his Maryland debut with 19 points and 13 rebounds, including nine offensive rebounds.
“Once he puts up his first double-double, which could happen in the first night we’ll play,” Coach Mark Turgeon said of Smith last month, “the national attention will come.”
Before the exhibition game against Lynn University last week, Smith was not practicing well, Turgeon said. But then the freshman posted a game-high 22 points. Smith has been a “different player from there,” Turgeon said, adding that Smith and Fernando are still learning how to play with another talented big man on the court.
Four minutes into the second half Tuesday, Fernando passed the ball to Smith, who finished a dunk of his own. By the time the two had made their way to the other side of the court, Fernando smiled and clapped before shifting his focus to defense. Fernando recorded all three of his blocks in the first half, which generated a buzz among the crowd similar to his dunks. Fernando fouled out late in the game as the Blue Hens rallied.
“He was great for us,” Fernando said of Smith’s role in his absence. “Those are the kind of things that I expect from him by being with him every day at practice and seeing him doing it over and over. ... I wasn’t surprised by anything he did. I knew he was going to step up.”
The Terrapins' inability to maintain a significant lead against Delaware could be a source of concern as Maryland continues its nonconference schedule, which includes five teams that participated in last year’s NCAA tournament, and its Big Ten slate. The Terps had a drought of nearly six minutes without a field goal in the second half as Delaware closed the gap.
“Obviously not the way we wanted to finish the second half,” Turgeon said. “We didn’t score around the rim, missed a couple free throws and we let the offense affect our defense. ... They made some shots. They got confident. And then we just couldn’t make a shot against the zone.”
Eric Carter, who finished with 29 points and nine rebounds for the Blue Hens, assisted on Jacob Cushing’s three-pointer to pull Delaware to within 70-67, and Turgeon called a timeout with 1:21 to play. Maryland junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. made three late free throws to secure the win. Cowan, however, had an uncharacteristic performance overall, making just four of his 19 field goal attempts.
Maryland returned a few key contributors from last season such as Fernando and Cowan, who scored 15 points Tuesday. But for the most part, the Terps will rely heavily on young players such as Smith in the program’s 100th season. The freshman class includes six scholarship players, and eight minutes into the game Turgeon had already used five of those players. Both Smith and Aaron Wiggins started their college debuts, and like Smith, freshman Eric Ayala impressed with big plays late in the game.
After the game, Turgeon joked about how some of his players were in eighth grade when Delaware’s redshirt seniors, including Carter, were beginning college.
In the spring, each Maryland player chose a word that was going to define his offseason. Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell picked “shooter,” referencing the area he wanted to show improvement, according to teammate Ivan Bender. Morsell scored Maryland’s first points of the season against Delaware, and he did so from behind the arc. Morsell only made three three-pointers all of last season.
But after Morsell and Wiggins each recorded three-pointers early in the game, the Terps struggled from deep. Early in the game, the team took too many threes, Turgeon said. Maryland finished the night 2 for 19 from three-point range.
Following the game, Turgeon told the team about the season opener two years ago. Maryland played American University and won, but the Terps “should have lost,” Turgeon said. That group of players ended up winning 20 of its first 22 games.
“This game, it never felt like we were going to lose,” Turgeon said. “I always felt like we were in control. It was just disappointing that we couldn’t get a jumper, get a stop. But that team ended up starting 20-2. I’m not saying we’re starting 20-2, but this young team is going to get better and get better quickly."