As Bruno Fernando backed down his defender midway through the second half, the Maryland basketball forward peered over his shoulder, waiting for Penn State’s Lamar Stevens to come double-team him. Once Stevens left his man to help on Fernando in the post, Fernando flipped the ball over his shoulder to a wide-open Jalen Smith beneath the hoop, and Smith slammed it home.
It was the Terps’ second consecutive possession of their 66-59 Big Ten-opening win Saturday to end with a Fernando assist on a Smith basket, and the emphatic flush was something the duo had worked on pregame.
Against No. 4 Virginia on Wednesday, coach Mark Turgeon was forced to play a small lineup as his team attempted to climb back into the contest. The Cavaliers took advantage of it, limiting Fernando’s second-half effectiveness and holding Smith to a season-low six points.
So, during shootaround Saturday, Turgeon told Smith to go straight to the basket if Fernando was double-teamed, an effort to more effectively utilize his team’s two talented big men. With his slam dunk with about 13 minutes to go — part of Smith’s team-high 16 points — Smith seemed to prove the combination of himself and Fernando can be lethal.
“Now teams will have to either decide if they’re going to double us and leave one big open or just guard us up straight,” Smith said. “Just knowing where he’s at, and he knows where I am at, it just helps us out with spacing on the court.”
Before Smith joined Maryland, he hadn’t experienced playing with another frontcourt player of Fernando’s size and skill, leading to a transition that’s been fluid at times and a struggle at others. But Saturday, the connection was seamless.
When Fernando received a pass from guard Darryl Morsell on the block, he immediately fired the ball to Smith, who was making a delayed cut into the paint. Smith battled through contact to finish at the rim, helping build a six-point advantage the Terps would rely on as the Nittany Lions fought back late.
Smith remained on the floor largely thanks to his impressive defensive performance. He was tasked with guarding Penn State’s most dangerous player, forward Lamar Stevens, who entered the game averaging 23 points. For as long as he could guard him effectively, Turgeon said, Maryland could continue using its two-big lineup, something it had to abandon earlier than desired against Virginia.
Smith held Stevens to 19 points on 24 shots, allowing Fernando and Smith to stay on the floor for over 66 minutes. Fernando and Smith, meanwhile, combined for 28 points and 21 rebounds.
“They played that lineup longer than I thought,” Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers said. “We need to do a better job on those guys. We tried to mix it up on them, keep them off balance. Some possessions [were] very good, some possessions not so good.”
After Smith’s two-handed dunk with about 13 minutes remaining, Fernando ran down the floor, hyping up a crowd of 15,481 inside Xfinity Center before high-fiving Smith as they set up on defense.
Should the Fernando and Smith partnership continue to blossom as it did Saturday, those crowds may have many more reasons to get loud in the future.
“Every game is different,” Turgeon said, “but tonight, the big lineup was the good lineup.”