If you were watching Maryland basketball for the first time, the front line of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith would jump out right away. Both are 6’10 with versatile skill sets. Fernando is becoming a double-double machine, and Smith was a top-15 recruit in his class. The frontcourt duo has earned acclaim as perhaps the best in the Big Ten.
In Maryland’s 74-72 victory Wednesday over No. 24 Nebraska, they played like it.
Fernando dominated all night, pouring in 18 points and grabbing a career-high 17 rebounds. He had his double-double in the early minutes of the second half and remained aggressive until the final buzzer. And Fernando’s energy was even more eye-popping than his stat line; he was screaming to the heavens after big plays and even slapped the Xfinity Center floor in the second half.
For most of the night, Smith looked like a freshman. He was pulled early in the game for not hustling for a rebound and Nebraska’s Isaiah Roby dunked all over him in the second half. But Smith owned the final three minutes, hitting three go-ahead baskets. The first was a breakaway slam dunk three-point play at the 2:39 mark. The second was a putback off an Anthony Cowan Jr. missed three with 28.4 seconds left. And the third was a floater with just 3.8 seconds to play that ended up being the game-winner.
“He wasn’t very good early, was he?” head coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. “He came out, Ricky was playing well, I was gonna leave him over there, and I was just chewing on him, the assistants were chewing on him, and he responded. ... We need Stix to play like that. When he plays like that, we’re a much better team.”
It’s just the third time this season that both bigs have scored at least 15 points, with the other occurrences against Delaware and Mount St. Mary’s. The growth of each player was on display Wednesday. Fernando, who’s improved all season at passing out of double teams, struggled with six turnovers, but made up for it in every other way. And Smith followed a three-point first half with a 12-point second half.
Having Fernando and Smith both play to their capabilities will be even more important in Big Ten play, where Maryland won’t be able to overpower teams with its size. Turgeon plans to go big almost exclusively from here on, which puts the onus on this duo to show out consistently, and on Ricky Lindo and Ivan Bender to provide effective relief. All four were effective Wednesday; in fact, it was Lindo who swatted away Nebraska’s lob to the basket in the final seconds.
“That was a huge play because we had to call a timeout and draw up something else because we didn’t really know what they were gonna do, and we didn’t really switch everything,” Smith said. “So just the awareness of Ricky at that time, going and deflecting a lob ... just a great play.”
The Terps hadn’t beaten a ranked team since 2016, and has predominantly struggled in close games going back to last season. To reverse both trends at once in the first game of 2019 brings a jolt of energy to a team that needed one. Maryland’s nonconference slate had some challenging opponents, but it didn’t come away with any wins that weren’t expected. That makes a strong conference season imperative, and this is a good start.
Maryland follows this game with two contests on the road, as the Terps visit Rutgers on Saturday and Minnesota on Tuesday. For a team coming off a 2-8 road record last season and dropping its first conference away game this year, that’s another important hurdle to clear. But the Terps are confident they can do just that.
“We’ve got a young team—unbelievably young team—and we’re doing some really good things, and this will give us confidence moving forward,” Turgeon said. “We beat a really old team, really really really good team, well-coached team.”