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Maryland basketball squeaks out statement win over Nebraska, 74-72

The Terps have their first victory over a ranked opponent since 2016.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday didn’t start well for Maryland basketball’s Jalen Smith. The McDonald’s All-American was pulled early in the first half after not diving for a loose ball, and Nebraska’s Isaiah Roby soared over him for a thunderous dunk early in the second half.

But in the final minute, Smith made the difference for Maryland. He scored the Terps’ last seven points, including a floater with 3.8 seconds left to give the Terps a 74-72 win over the No. 24 Cornhuskers to start 2019.

After a three-point play by Smith to give Maryland a 70-67 lead with 2:39 to go, the Huskers answered back with four straight points in the next 26 seconds to retake the lead. Neither team scored over the next 1:42 until a putback from Smith gave Maryland the lead with 31 seconds remaining. James Palmer Jr. was fouled on the other end, but the 83.5 percent free throw shooter hit just one of two shots to tie the game with 22 seconds. After running the clock down to 10 seconds, Eric Ayala passed off to Smith, who hit the biggest shot of his Maryland career. Nebraska tried an alley-oop at the other end, coming up empty.

Both teams’ top players had monster games, as Palmer and Bruno Fernando couldn’t be stopped for much of the night. Palmer had a game-high 26 points, and Fernando had 18 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. Following a 1-for-5 start, Anthony Cowan Jr. closed the game strong, leading Maryland in scoring with 19 points. Smith rallied after a rough start on both ends of the floor to join Cowan in double figures with 15 points.

As expected in a nailbiter. both teams had similar stat lines. Maryland shot 46.7 percent from the field compared to Nebraska’s 47.1 percent. The Terps hit eight threes, while the Huskers hit nine. Maryland shot 71 percent from the line, while Nebraska shot 65 percent. While the Huskers shot 23 free throws compared to the Terps 14, Maryland made up for that gap by outrebounding Nebraska, 38-28.

The first half was a close affair, with neither team leading by more than five points over the first 20 minutes. Maryland trailed for most of the half, struggling with Nebraska’s ball screens and Palmer’s scoring. The Upper Marlboro native scored 13 of the Huskers’ first 25 points.

Both teams went through extended offensive droughts to end the half after strong starts on offense. Nebraska went on a three minute scoring drought near the end of the half, allowing Maryland to go on a 9-0 run and take a 33-29 lead with 2:59 remaining. The Terps, however, did not hit a field goal the final 4:10 of the half, and Nebraska went on a 10-2 run to take a 39-35 lead into the locker room.

Maryland scored the first four points of the second half to tie the game at 39, but like the first half, both teams struggled to score after that. The Terps missed eight straights following a dunk from Smith, and went over three minutes without a bucket. Nebraska wasn’t really able to capitalize, but did push the lead to 47-39 after five straight free throws from Palmer.

Once again, Maryland answered with a 10-2 run, with Cowan hitting a three in transition to tie the game. The teams exchanged the lead six times over the next three minutes, with the Terps beginning to push ahead. Cowan hit a three despite being slapped by Glynn Watson Jr. to give Maryland a four-point lead with 5:13 to go, matching the Terps’ largest lead of the game.

But like every other time in this game, the trailing team bounced back, with Nebraska scoring the next four to tie the game. The Huskers did the same after a Smith transition dunk led to a three-point play, scoring four straight again to take a 71-70 lead with 2:07 remaining.

Fernando missed the front end of one-and-one on Maryland’s next possession, and couldn’t find a good shot after Smith corralled the rebound. Following a Nebraska miss, Smith made another key play, cleaning up a Cowan missed three with 28.4 seconds left to retake the lead. Palmer, an 83.5 percent free throw shooter, made just 1 of 2 on the other end to tie the game at 72 with 21.9 seconds to go.

The Terps bled much of the clock on the other end, until Smith caught the ball on the foul line took one dribble and kissed in a floater with 3.8 seconds to go. Despite not guarding the inbounder, Nebraska couldn’t get off a good look, and Maryland started 2019 with a crucial victory.

Maryland is back in action Saturday at 2 p.m. ET when it travels up I-95 to visit Rutgers.

Three things to know

1. Jalen Smith shook off a rough start to make the biggest plays of the game. The first 25 minutes may have been the freshman’s worst of the season. He struggled to match Nebraska’s intensity, and Isaiah Roby put him in a bodybag early in the second half. But the freshman shook it off and made the difference when Maryland needed someone to make a play. He’d score Maryland’s last seven points, including the game-winner.

2. The stars were stars. Maryland won’t see many players better than Palmer for the rest of the season. The Terps were able to control him in spurts, but the St. John’s graduate seemingly had an answer for everything Maryland threw at him. But Nebraska had no answers for Fernando. Although the 6’10 sophomore struggled with double teams in the first half, Fernando imposed his will as the game went on, and used his seemingly endless flow of energy to keep his team engaged.

3. Maryland got a close win. After failing to close out wins against Purdue and Seton Hall, there were plenty of nervous fans at Xfinity Center as this game went down to the wire. The Terps still committed some sloppy turnovers late, but got enough stops and some clutch baskets to get a crucial win.