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Maryland basketball’s bigs and defense dominated against Nebraska

Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith tossed up double-doubles and the Terps kept Nebraska to 21 percent shooting.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

When Maryland basketball traveled to Nebraska Wednesday night, the Terps were facing a desperate opponent who needed a win to salvage a once-promising season. It’s the same scenario Maryland faced on Jan. 18 at Ohio State, when the Terps faced a slumping Buckeyes team that had recently fallen out of the top 25.

In that game, Maryland took over late in the first half before holding off an early second-half rally. The Terps did the same thing against the Cornhuskers, thanks to a dominant game inside and suffocating defense.

With Maryland trailing 15-8 with 11:41 remaining in the first half, the Terps needed any source of offense. Maryland had made three of its first 15 shots, and Nebraska was the early aggressor on both ends of the floor. That’s when Jalen Smith took over. After playing possibly his worst first half of the season before scoring the Terps’ last seven points in a 74-72 win on Jan. 2, Smith shook off a rough first few minutes to score 11 straight points.

Smith would finish with a team-high 18 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double of the season, and showed why he had scouts drooling over his upside at the start of the year. He got more aggressive and more confident as the game went on, and had a nice dunk in transition and a pretty assist to Anthony Cowan Jr. after setting a screen.

While Smith was carrying Maryland’s offense, its play on the other end of the floor significantly improved as well. The Terps held Nebraska to just 21 percent shooting from the field, which is the worst shooting game for the Huskers in Pinnacle Bank Arena since it opened in 2013.

Nebraska missed some open shots, but Maryland’s defense had a lot to do with that. Multiple times in the first half, the Huskers couldn’t find an open shot, moving the ball around before desperately hoisting up a prayer late in the shot clock. James Palmer Jr., who scored a conference season-high 26 points in the first matchup, scored 12 points on an abysmal 2-of-13 shooting. Isaiah Roby, who had 12 points over the first 8:19, scored just eight more and shot 3-of-15 for the remainder of the game. By the end of the game, Nebraska had made more free throws (17) than shots from the field (12).

After halftime, the game belonged to Bruno Fernando. The sophomore had a slow start offensively with just two points, but finished with nine rebounds, limiting Nebraska to six one-and-done possessions on offense. He turned up his energy meter for the second half, recording a double-double over the final 20 minutes alone. His biggest highlight came with 12:53 to go, when he shook off a Tanner Borchardt flop for an emphatic slam dunk, then stepped over Borchardt as he tried to get back down the floor.

Nebraska head coach Tim Miles was furious and got called for a technical foul, and Fernando was booed heartily every time he touched the ball. It only seemed to motivate him more, and he finished with 13 points and a career-high 19 rebounds.

The defense continued to clamp down as well, getting stops every time Nebraska tried to get back into the game. That allowed Maryland to go on a run even when the offense wasn’t flowing, making a crucial 24-6 run after the Huskers cut the lead to two with 14:55 remaining.

On a night where not everything that went right for the Terps, they were solid in two areas that will be key in the final stretch of the season. If Smith and Fernando continue to impose their will and the defense remains strong, Maryland will be a tough matchup for any team the rest of the way.