COLLEGE PARK – Jalen Smith sure loves feasting on Golden Gophers.
The Maryland men’s basketball team closed out the regular season at home with a 69-60 victory against Minnesota on Friday and, just like the first meeting between the two squads in early January, Smith ran roughshod on the Gophers as he registered a double-double, with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Smith’s penchant for Gopher meat was on full display when Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy jumped in the air to attempt a dunk. Smith, sporting a ferocious game-face visible even from the rafters, denied his opponent with a tremendous block that knocked the ball right out of Murphy’s hands.
With the Big Ten Tournament drawing ever closer and the 22-9 Terps slated to enter as the fourth or fifth seed, the players made sure Senior Night was an evening to remember. Seniors Andrew Terrell and Ivan Bender were honored before the game for their contributions to the program and, during the festivities, Bender shocked his teammates by proposing to his longtime girlfriend, Andrea, on the court.
Bender hadn’t told his teammates about his plans, but his pregame proposal served to further hype up the Terps, especially Smith.
“I was already fired up because it was Senior Night and it was the last game of the regular season, but I think it was Ivan’s proposal that kind of fired me up, because I was already hyped from it,” said Smith. “I thought I might as well carry this energy over.”
Perhaps it was that energy that spilled over onto Anthony Cowan, Jr., as well; Cowan strung together another prolific Player of the Game performance against Minnesota, with 21 points and five assists.
Meanwhile, Maryland forward Bruno Fernando, despite playing fewer minutes than usual due to two early fouls, notched his 20th double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Fernando is now tied for third place with former player Joe Smith for the most double-doubles in one season in Maryland history.
“I think (Smith and Cowan) with Bruno included are about as talented as any three players in our league,” said Minnesota Head Coach Richard Pitino. “They’ve got great size; they’ve got great depth. Cowan’s been a terrific player in this league for a long time. When Jalen’s hitting threes and then he’s driving you, it makes it hard to cover him.”
The Terps led by as much as 20 points in the second half as turnovers plagued the Gophers. In fact, Maryland earned 18 total points by capitalizing on Minnesota’s mistakes throughout the game.
Cowan took advantage of his team’s comfortable lead by dictating a slower pace until Minnesota guard Amir Coffey, the Gophers’ top scorer, began driving to the basket again and again. Coffey, who had managed just six points in the first half and didn’t hit a single bucket until 15 minutes into the game, almost single-handedly whittled away at Maryland’s lead.
The night, however, would belong to the Terps. Fans who had been chanting “We want Andrew” and “We want Bender” gave the two players a standing ovation when Head Coach Mark Turgeon sent both seniors onto the court.
Turgeon said that the loss at home against Michigan five days earlier served as motivation as the Terps headed into the regular season finale.
“I was encouraged from the Michigan game. I know we didn’t win it, but I was encouraged by our effort and how we defended,” said Turgeon. “I knew we were going to play well, and I knew we were going to play with energy. I could tell our guys were locked in yesterday at practice. It was great to see Anthony get a few shots, and (Smith) was terrific.”
The Big Ten Tournament runs from March 13 to 17 in Chicago. The Terps are going to be the fourth or fifth seed but in order for them to get the fourth seed they need some conference teams to lose. One of those games that will determine seeding is the one between Wisconsin and Ohio State on March 10. Although it is not a tournament game though.