On the night the program dubbed “Stix Night,” a reference to his nickname, Smith recorded his seventh straight double-double and led the No. 9 Terrapins to a closer-than-expected 72-70 win over the Cornhuskers at Xfinity Center. His most notable play came with five seconds left, after Maryland’s 14-point lead had been whittled to one, when he blocked Nebraska guard Cam Mack’s layup attempt that could have put the Cornhuskers ahead. Smith grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 0.7 seconds left.
As Mack drove toward the basket, “I saw Stix by the rim," Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “I felt pretty good.”
But the game should have never come down to that play. Maryland shouldn’t have needed Smith’s heroic moment, when “a lot of different things could have happened if he wasn’t there," senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said. It wasn’t their best night, but the Terrapins (20-4, 10-3 Big Ten) survived against Nebraska (7-17, 2-11) and earned their seventh consecutive win.
“If you’re going to have a flat game, have it at home against a team that’s won two and figure out how to win it,” Turgeon said. “And we got lucky. … I mean, the kid could have made a layup and we could have lost.”
The Terrapins had just taken sole possession of first place in the Big Ten on Friday, when they traveled to Illinois and earned an emotional win. This weekend, the Terps will head to Michigan State with a chance to prove they are still worthy of that standing. But sandwiched in between those two marquee road matchups was this Tuesday night game at home against a Cornhuskers team that had lost eight straight.
“We didn’t respect our opponent enough,” Turgeon said. “I’ll take the blame for that.”
Maryland appeared to avoid the trap in the first half, and the Terrapins built a 38-25 halftime lead after Cowan made two of three free throws with 0.2 seconds left before the break.
But Nebraska wouldn’t go away after the Terrapins’ lead grew to 43-29, and Maryland’s typically strong defense faltered. The Cornhuskers managed to cut Maryland’s lead to two points with 7:37 to go, the first peak of their late rally. Sophomore guard Eric Ayala, who finished with 16 points in his second straight game in double figures after a lengthy slump, responded by hitting a timely three. Smith made a layup on the following possession, and Ayala made another three to bump Maryland’s lead back to 10 with 4:47 to play.
“You just kept thinking we were going to get it going defensively, because that’s what we do,” Turgeon said. “But we never did. Thank God we got it going offensively for that stretch to get that 10-point lead.”
Maryland was clinging to a 71-68 lead when Ayala stepped to the foul line with 22 seconds to go, but he missed his first free throw to give the ball back to Nebraska. The Terps opted to foul with 12 seconds left rather than allow a potential tying three-pointer, and Mack made both of his free throws. The Cornerhuskers immediately sent Cowan to the line with Maryland’s lead down to one, and the usually reliable free throw shooter missed his first attempt, too, giving Nebraska a chance to pull off a stunning upset. But then Smith helped Maryland survive the scare by blocking Mack’s shot.
The near-collapse largely overshadowed a balanced performance by the Terps, who had three players record double-doubles in the same game for the first time since a trip to Duke in 2001. Smith finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds against his undersized opponents. Freshman Donta Scott added the first double-double of his career with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Cowan notched 13 points and 10 assists, though he called the game the worst defensive performance of his four-year career.
Ayala’s 16 points were a season high, and he made 4 of 8 three-pointers. The sophomore added five assists and had just two turnovers in a strong effort that followed his 12-point showing against Illinois. Scott has also played well in back-to-back games, giving Maryland the boost that comes with knowing its complementary players are beginning to find a rhythm at the right time.
But Maryland committed 17 turnovers, was outrebounded in the second half despite a significant size advantage and allowed the Cornhuskers to shoot 54.8 percent from the field after halftime.
“Definitely was a weird locker room,” Cowan said. “We really didn’t know whether to celebrate or be down on ourselves.”
Nebraska has struggled through its first season under Coach Fred Hoiberg, who has a roster with hardly any continuity from last season. Dachon Burke, the Cornhuskers’ third-leading scorer averaging 11.4 points per game, missed the game with an illness. But Nebraska kept pace with the Terps and continued to show life as it repeatedly attempted to rally. Haanif Cheatham led Nebraska with 20 points, including 18 in the second half.
Only Smith’s big play, on his big night, prevented a catastrophe against a Big Ten minnow.
“I think it’s kind of natural,” Cowan said of the Terps’ lack of urgency against an inferior opponent. “We’re playing basketball, but at the end of the day, it’s not the so-called big game, but we’ve got to look at it like that. That’s on us. We’ve got to approach the game like it’s our championship every game. We didn’t do that tonight.”