KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maryland freshman Jared Nickens floated to the left side of the perimeter and waited, a deliberate move which has become a common theme through the first two weeks of his college career. Patience. But as the ball swung his way midway through the second half of Tuesday night’s game against No. 13 Iowa State, Nickens didn’t hesitate for an instant. He caught the ball, and true to his reputation, quickly released a three-point shot over Cyclones star forward Georges Niang.
After he drained the shot, Nickens turned and stared at Niang before letting out a loud shout. The true freshman, full of swagger and confidence, had announced himself in full. Nickens finished with 15 points and hit a number of crucial second-half shots, and Jake Layman added 15 to lift Maryland to a 72-63 upset win in the College Basketball Experience Hall of Fame Classic title game.
“Everyone just had confidence in me, which boosted my confidence,” Nickens said. “Whenever I had an open look, I just let it go.”
Maryland’s staff met in the late-night hours after beating Arizona State on Monday, huddling in Mark Turgeon’s hotel suite trying to figure out how it was going to handle Iowa State’s power. Turgeon was told by his assistants what it would and wouldn’t be able to do against the Cyclones, and that’s when Turgeon lost his patience. He asked them if the team should just forfeit the biggest game of the year so far. Then he told everyone to leave his room so he could watch film of Iowa State, alone.
Turgeon and his lieutenants put together a game plan by Tuesday, and it began to unfold beautifully in the first-half Tuesday. The Terrapins (5-0) received consummate performances for veterans Layman and Dez Wells, who had 14 points and nine rebounds — and its freshman class took another step behind the brilliance of Nickens and point guard Melo Trimble, who scored 11 points and had three assists.
“These last two days were really good to us,” said Trimble, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. “This is good practice for us going down the road.”
Maryland’s win over Arizona State on Monday gave the program its first 4-0 start in five years, but a night later it was clear that the team wasn’t going to be satisfied with a split. The crowd was considerably more hostile, given the number of Iowa State fans that made the short trip from around the region — and it was Maryland’s first true road test of the season.
It was also facing a legitimate team in Iowa State (3-1), a well-oiled scoring machine that rolled past Alabama, 84-74, on Monday. Niang had 28 points in that game, and Maryland countered the 6-foot-8 all-American candidate by rotating forwards Jon Graham, Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky on him in the first half.
It seemed to work, as Niang picked up two fouls and missed all three three-point attempts, and Iowa State struggled to find offensive rhythm in the early going (38.7 shooting in the first half).
A night after a resounding 31-point performance from Trimble, Maryland was much more balanced in the first half Tuesday. It continued to pound the ball on the interior (18 points in the paint in the first 20 minutes), and Wells and Layman combined for 17 points to open up a 37-34 halftime lead.
But even as it grinded out long offensive possessions and capitalized in key moments, it was Maryland’s ability to guard that made the difference. It held Iowa State to just one made field goal in the first seven minutes of the second half, and forced the Cyclones to play catch-up the entire way down the stretch. The Cyclones shot just 29.7 percent and missed 21 three-pointers, and although they committed just seven turnovers they were kept off balance by Maryland’s length and athleticism.
While Turgeon was careful not to label the win as one of the most important in his four years in College Park, it moved Maryland to its first 5-0 start since 2006 and promises to re-energize, at least temporarily, a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010.
“We know that we can beat anybody,” Layman said. “We’re a very confident team right now and we’re looking to keep it going.”
Much of the newfound energy has been infused by the freshmen class, and Nickens has quickly built a reputation as team comedian. He helped keep the Terps loose Monday night by imitating one of Maryland’s coaches.
“He really enjoys college, the right way,” Turgeon said. “He’s having a lot of fun. Our whole team is having fun.”
After Niang (10 points on 4-of-14 shooting) had pulled Iowa State to 51-46 with a three-pointer with 10 minutes 18 seconds left, Nickens answered with his second three-pointer of the game.
The Cyclones would never get closer after that. Niang had another opportunity to pull Iowa State closer with about seven minutes remaining, but Trimble stripped him and went coast to coast for a layup to push the lead back to 58-48.
“Dez [Wells] always tells me, when I come into the game, do what I do, and that’s shoot,” Nickens said.
Turgeon wrapped up his postgame press conference quickly, and afterward he ran into Trimble and Nickens in the hallway. The freshmen were still in their red uniforms, and Trimble looked at Turgeon and asked: “Can I get a hug?” The coach and his young star embraced, and Nickens joined in a moment later.
“The best part about them, is they’re really coachable,” Turgeon said. “They fit right in.”