Smith carried No. 17 Maryland to a 77-66 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena, but it was more than a pedestrian victory against the struggling Wildcats. His career-best night — 25 points, 11 rebounds — helped the Terps overcome a 14-point halftime deficit. He had 21 points in the second half, including seven straight late in the period after Maryland led by just two. Smith committed his fourth foul with five minutes to go, but when Coach Mark Turgeon needed his standout player in the game, Smith played smart and just kept scoring.
Smith dived for a loose ball late, which Turgeon called “the play of the game,” adding that he “had to double-take. I couldn’t believe it was Jalen that did it.” But Smith did that and more, and he downplayed the notion that this might have been the signature game of his career.
Smith hit a three-pointer with just under two minutes left to push the Terps’ lead to nine. With the game seemingly sealed in the final minute, Smith thought he had fouled out — until the official reviewed the play and assessed the infraction to Anthony Cowan Jr. Smith pointed to the scoreboard and then held his finger to his lips, silencing the Northwestern fans who not long before figured they would leave with a marquee win.
“I used to do it a lot at high school,” Smith said of the gesture. “But coming into my freshman year, I tried to mature more and not do it because my parents told me I’d look like a fool.”
Now he has some well-earned confidence — a sophomore’s helping of self-assurance. Smith called it “just a little friendly warfare.”
Fellow sophomore Aaron Wiggins notched a career-high 17 points, including 11 in the second half, less than two weeks after he was held scoreless for the first time in his career during a loss at Iowa. Wiggins hit five three-pointers, his most this season. When Maryland had a hard time containing Pat Spencer, a former lacrosse star at Loyola (Md.) who led the Wildcats with 17 points, Turgeon had Wiggins guard him.
Maryland trailed by 15 points during the first half, a disastrous performance by the Terps that ended with them trailing 40-26, but the push from those sophomores ensured Maryland (15-4, 5-3 Big Ten) wouldn’t suffer its first loss at Northwestern.
At halftime, Turgeon said he told his players: “We’re going to change our season at halftime, guys. We’re having a good year, but I want to make it a great year.”
For the final 20 minutes, the Terps played with confidence and passion. Wiggins said they had fun and played as though they knew they would win. At the break, Turgeon had told the group to play “street ball.”
“And that fired everybody up,” Smith said, “because everybody knows street ball. You’re just playing not really worried about anything.”
The Terps emerged from the locker room with energy and assembled a confidence-boosting second half that proved this team can play well on the road.
“When we have the energy and we all have the faith that we can win any game that we play, regardless of the score, regardless of how we start off, it just shows our potential as a team,” Wiggins said. “We have the abilities. We have everything we need. We’ve just got to make sure we come to play.”
Maryland had lost its first four road games, and the circumstances were ripe Tuesday for the Terps to end that skid. But they dug a familiar early hole that instead suggested Maryland might leave suburban Chicago with its worst loss of the season.
Maryland’s night, both offensively and defensively, began to unravel early and in dreadful fashion. The Terps have had plenty of slow starts, but they had never fallen into a deficit as deep as this one. Northwestern (6-12, 1-7) jumped to a 10-0 lead as the Terps took three-pointers without success. Seven of their first eight shots came from behind the arc, with sophomore Serrel Smith Jr. finally scoring Maryland’s first points with a three at 16:25.
With Northwestern swarming the paint and double-teaming Jalen Smith, the Terps had little inside game in the first half, forcing them to attempt 17 three-pointers while scoring only two points in the paint. Maryland’s starters finished the half shooting 1 for 15 from the field. The limited production Maryland had came from its bench, with two three-pointers from both Serrel Smith and Wiggins and another from sophomore forward Ricky Lindo Jr., who hadn’t attempted one since early November.
The Terps’ offense has struggled before, but usually their defense is solid enough to keep them in the game. Before this matchup, Maryland’s defense ranked fifth nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics-based ratings. But against Northwestern, the Terps’ first-half defensive effort was as woeful as their attempts on offense. They switched to a zone, then back to man-to-man, but neither proved particularly effective. The Wildcats, who have the second-lowest-scoring offense in the Big Ten, climbed ahead with ease and shot 60 percent from the field in the first half.
The early struggles forced the Terps into the 14-point halftime deficit, matching their largest of the season. But when they returned to the court, they played with energy they had lacked earlier, bursting out of the break on a 10-3 run. As Jalen Smith and Wiggins continued to shine, they slowly chipped away at Northwestern’s lead until the game ended with a jubilant, and at times unexpected, result for the Terps.
“It was just a fun night,” Smith said.
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