JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Maryland men’s basketball guard Darryl Morsell was deciding between trying to go around Belmont forward Dylan Windler or just pulling up in front of him, when he had a change of heart.
“Something just said, ‘Get that ball to Stix. He’s been playing hard.’”
As Morsell drove baseline late in the second half, forward Jalen Smith looped around and rolled to the rim from the opposite side. Morsell spotted him and dished a pass, setting the stage for Smith’s thunderous posterization of Windler that was as pivotal as it was jaw-dropping.
Smith’s highlight-reel dunk capped off the best game of his freshman season, a 19-point, 12-rebound display in which he imposed his will on the undersized Bruins, putting the Terps over the top by turning his teammates’ frequent misses into points and ridding himself of the big-game demons that had haunted him for much of the year.
“All I could think about was just what he’s been through. He gets a lot of pressure on him. A lot of critics on him. I was just happy for him,” guard Eric Ayala said. “He’s the difference-maker for us. Every game he’s dominant or has a good game, we come out victorious.”
[Read more: No. 6-seed Maryland men’s basketball holds on for 79-77 win over No. 11-seed Belmont]
Maryland is undefeated this season when Smith scores 15 points or more, something that’s happened 11 times. Smith’s averaging just 8.5 points in losses.
A week before the NCAA tournament win, coach Mark Turgeon implored Smith to crash the offensive glass midway through the Terps’ Big Ten tournament debacle.
The message didn’t get through. Smith finished with just one offensive board and five rebounds total against Nebraska, another forgettable game on a big stage in a campaign full of them.
“At the Big Ten tournament, I’d say we looked past [Nebraska],” Smith said. “Now that we’re in March, we know that any team can be beat.”
[Read more: Against Belmont, Maryland men’s basketball has another chance to end its postseason streak]
Like everybody on Maryland, Smith was quiet against the Huskers, scoring eight points on 3-for-8 shooting from the field, failing to take advantage of the double-teams on forward Bruno Fernando that have frequently led to offensive rebounds for the Terps’ other big man.
It was part of team-wide rebounding struggles that the Terps said were due largely to a lack of intensity in Chicago.
Against the Bruins, Smith’s effort on the boards ensured Maryland didn’t suffer another upset loss.
“They’re a great box-out team — one of the best things they do is box out, limit second-chance points,” Turgeon said. “Stix just wouldn’t be denied. He was terrific, and finished and played with strength.”
Smith’s eight offensive rebounds were his most since the season-opener, taking advantage of his size advantage over the Ohio Valley Conference foe.
He shot 8-for-9 from the floor, with 15 of his 19 points coming on second chances, and 12 of those coming after his own offensive rebound.
“We always joke around about playing with that ‘dog,’ playing aggressive,” Ayala said. “We had a conversation just before the game, he was like, ‘I’m gonna bring that dog out.’ … It showed. He didn’t get boxed out at all today.”
The showing was particularly impressive considering Smith’s penchant for disappearing in big games. Time and time again this year, when the pressure turned up, Smith buckled. He had bad outings in losses to Virginia, Purdue, Michigan State and Wisconsin, with the expected freshman struggles always seeming to come in highly anticipated games.
A McDonald’s All-American who could have played his way into being a one-and-done, Smith’s rookie season hasn’t always met the lofty expectations bestowed upon him.
Smith is rarely the recipient of entry passes into the post, with that role reserved for Fernando. Sometimes, that’s left the Baltimore native struggling to get his shots up, losing physical battles as he worked on adding weight to the wiry 6-foot-10 frame that long ago earned him the ‘Stix’ nickname.
On Thursday, though, he worked around that by dominating above the rim, earning easy looks and finishing with ease to keep the Terps in it early, and then blowing the roof off the gym with an exclamation point.
“It felt amazing,” Smith said. “The crowd went crazy. I could feel the energy in the gym just rise. Anytime you get an emphatic jam like that, it just gives the team even more energy.”