Jalen Smith brushed his hand over Anthony Cowan’s head as he walked by, messing with the junior guard during his press conference after Tuesday’s 94-71 win over Loyola-Maryland.
Smith looked loose throughout the day, stemming from the recommendation of his teammates following a dismal outing Saturday against Loyola-Chicago. During pregame warmups, the freshman danced as music blared through the loudspeakers at Xfinity Center. Then, he took the floor and posted a career-high 20 points, along with eight rebounds and a pair of blocks.
Early in Smith’s career in College Park, the Baltimore native hasn’t always found consistent offensive output. Sometimes, he’ll wow the crowd and his teammates; other times, he’ll struggle to find a rhythm.
But when he’s comfortable — as he was Tuesday — Smith transforms into a dominant inside presence, something the Terps sorely need.
“He’s just gotta play with more emotion,” Cowan said. “When he does that, he changes. This game, I see him dancing in warmups, he’s having a little bit more fun, a little bit more free. That’s the Jalen I know.”
Less than two minutes into Maryland’s game against Loyola-Chicago on Saturday, Smith vacated the floor, having picked up an early foul. He went on to appear for just four minutes in the opening period and finished with one point in the Terps’ ugly 55-41 win.
Smith said the fouls “took my head out of the game.” He became too passive, wanting to avoid further calls at Royal Farms Arena in his hometown.
Coach Mark Turgeon bemoaned the lack of involvement Smith had on proceedings Saturday, so the two met up on Monday. It became an emphasis for the team in practice.
On Maryland’s first possession against Loyola-Maryland, Smith nailed both free throws after he drew contact going for a layup, then hit a 3-pointer later in the half as part of a 16-4 Terps run. In the first three minutes of the second period, he had a slam dunk on a fast break and a jumper on consecutive possessions, helping to build a lead as high as 30 points.
“Every time I make a shot, it just builds my confidence,” Smith said. “I go through my head saying, ‘You can do it,’ and ‘If you see an open shot, shoot it.’”
Smith’s 7-for-13 night was in stark contrast with his 0-for-1 display three days earlier. He credited the improvement to his teammates, who saw the underlying cause for his struggles against the Ramblers.
“After the game, my teammates pretty much told me that I was just playing like I wasn’t there mentally,” Smith said of Saturday’s game. “They said, ‘Just be more cheerful when the games come,’ so I did what they said.”
A young Terps team is bound to have underwhelming performances. But 58 of Maryland’s 94 points Tuesday were scored by freshmen, with Smith’s 20 leading the way.
That provides a promising takeaway for a team hoping for significant games in March.
“Maybe it just took me to sit down with him and say, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to be more aggressive,’” Turgeon said. “’We need you to get where we want to be by the end of the year.’ Maybe that’s all it took.”