MINNEAPOLIS — Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon had a premonition a few minutes into Saturday’s game against Minnesota, a powerful suspicion that he needed to share with freshman forward Justin Jackson. During the first timeout of the game, shortly after Jackson drained his first three-pointer, Turgeon pulled the rookie aside.
“Justin, I think you’re going to get 30 today, I can feel it,” Turgeon told him, hoping his words would somehow kindle an offensive awakening in historic Williams Arena.
Jackson later confirmed that his coach foreshadowed the best performance of his career, even if he came up slightly short of fulfilling the prophecy in an 85-78 win. He finished with 28 points, but that was about the only thing Jackson did wrong on an afternoon when he helped 22nd-ranked Maryland erase a 12-point deficit to win its fifth road game of the season and keep pace with No. 15 Wisconsin atop the Big Ten standings.
“I just came into the game like every other game: locked in,” said Jackson, who nailed all five of his three-point attempts and grabbed 10 rebounds, providing the first double-double of his career when his team needed it the most.
Turgeon has often said that nothing his freshman class does surprises him, but even he was a little floored by what Jackson and fellow rookie Kevin Huerter did in front of the most hostile crowd of the season. Huerter added 19 points, including a three-pointer from the left corner to give his team a 79-76 lead with 1:31 remaining. He held three fingers aloft after the shot, pointing to the rafters of the arena known as The Barn, signaling to everyone Maryland’s refusal to wilt in its 11th second-half comeback win of the season.
“We knew the history coming in here. I think it was definitely somehwere I was looking forward to playing at,” said Huerter, who hit 5 of 7 from three-point range.
That Maryland (19-2, 7-1 Big Ten) won by seven was almost ironic given the team’s running count of games won by six points or fewer — it has claimed eight of those. The final margin was the result of a 59-point second half led by two freshmen and facilitated by junior guard Melo Trimble. The standout junior guard deferred to his understudies all day and finished with 13 points, nine assists and seven rebounds against no turnovers.
“I know how the game goes,” he said. “When they’re on, they’re on. It’s my job as a point guard to keep feeding them.”
Maryland was pushed around inside once again, getting outrebounded 41-31, but it made up for that with cleaner ball security (just seven turnovers) and the offensive prowess of Jackson and Huerter, who went a combined 16 for 25 from the field.
Minnesota (15-7, 3-6), which lost its fifth consecutive game, surged to a 19-1 run to take a 12-point lead within the first 11 minutes. Still, even as Maryland was outshot and outrebounded in the first half, it remained in striking distance largely because of the poise of Jackson and Huerter.
Jackson hit consecutive three-pointers to cut the lead to four with 6:23 remaining in the first half, crucial makes that were set up after he used his 7-foot-3 wingspan to help strip center Reggie Lynch of the ball and force a turnover. Huerter’s swarming defensive effort helped hold Minnesota freshman Amir Coffey, a lengthy southpaw, scoreless after an 11-point first half.
Jackson’s fifth three-pointer pulled Maryland within 49-47 with just less than 13 minutes to play. As Minnesota devoted more attention to Jackson and Huerter, opportunities for others opened up. Junior forward Jared Nickens, who has settled into backup role behind Huerter, nailed a three-pointer, and Anthony Cowan Jr. gave Maryland its first lead of the second half with a steal and layup with 11:40 to play.
Trimble found a small opening himself on the next possession. He finished an acrobatic layup to give his team a two-point lead with 8:32 left, then fed Huerter in the corner for another three-pointer on the ensuing possession. That was a crucial play during a stretch in which Maryland scored on eight consecutive possessions and hushed a raucous crowd.
It was followed by a perplexing stretch for senior center Damonte Dodd, who committed a turnover and then two lane violations on missed free throws by Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy. That allowed the Gophers to tie it at 63 with a little more than six minutes remaining. Trimble tied the game again at 67 off a layup with 5:07 remaining, and he followed that with another circus layup in transition after being fed off a steal from Cowan. Trimble made the shot despite taking heavy contact, and after knocking down the free throw to complete the three-point play, Maryland owned a 73-71 lead with 2:49 remaining.
But it only made sense that the action circled back to Jackson and Huerter for the final stretch. After Trimble’s finish, Minnesota guard Nate Mason drilled a three-pointer to give his team back the lead. Jackson answered with a three-point play of his own, and after Mason again tied the game with a pair of free throws, Trimble found Huerter for the biggest shot of the day.
Jackson’s final point came on a free throw with 36 seconds left, and while he didn’t get another shot to potentially reach 30 points like Turgeon had portended, he emerged from the locker room afterward with a bag of ice on his knee and spoke of how cold-blooded this team can really be.
“I’ll do whatever I can do to help my team win,” he said.