COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Before Maryland hosted St. Francis (Pa.) Dec. 4 at the Xfinity Center, backup point guard Jaylen Brantley said the team’s prolonged five-hour bus ride back from Chapel Hill, N.C., would toughen the Terps up and “just make us a better team.” Well, after a 96-55 beatdown of the Red Flash, maybe Brantley and UMD (7-1) should take a few more monotonous rides.
Brantley may not have been front and center during the Dec. 4 drubbing, but his performance was perhaps the most encouraging next to senior wing Jake Layman’s resurgence (16 points on 5-of-7 shooting).
Frequently spelling starting point Melo Trimble, the Odessa Community College (Odessa, Texas) transfer ended up with seven points (2-of-4), a rebound, an assist and just one turnover. Most notable were the two jump shots Brantley canned, the first field goals he’s converted all season after recording just a single free-throw during the first seven games.
“Coach [Mark] Turgeon kept telling me to be aggressive and be myself,” said Brantley. “He told me I make shots in practice, I might as well go make them in the game -- or I can’t play you if you don’t shoot the ball.”
Jumpstarting Brantley was a primary goal heading into the match. The Red Flash (3-4) represented one of the weakest opponents on Maryland’s schedule, so Turgeon figured to have ample opportunities to test his No. 2s -- and even No. 3s. The headman said Dec. 3 he wanted Brantley involved early and often as the Terps search for another adequate floor general besides Trimble.
Brantley took the floor less than seven minutes in Dec. 4 and basically played starter’s minutes after that.
“It’s great when you can put up these kind of numbers and share the minutes,” Turgeon said. “But it’s good to see Jaylen hit a couple shots. He can really shoot the ball. He played with more confidence out there, which was great. He’s been practicing better, and the short time he played against North Carolina I thought he played well. The guys believe in him … We need him, and I just have to keep showing confidence in him.”
Turgeon remained confident even after Brantley got off to another inauspicious start against St. Francis. He turned the ball over promptly after entering and then drew iron on his first jumper, making him 0-for-4 in 2015-16. But with 2:24 left in the first half and the Terps ahead 40-16, Brantley experienced a mini-surge, scoring seven straight points to close the initial 20 minutes.
He began by nailing a pull-up, jump-stopping in the lane before tossing up a 12-footer.
“That was a big relief,” Brantley said.
After that, it was back to old times, when Brantley used to reign triples at Odessa. The guard admitted it’s much more difficult to get off a clean shot against high-major competition, but Brantley did have quite a smooth stroke in junior college.
It was on full display 35 seconds after that 12-footer. Brantley, left open near the top of the arc, took a feed from Trimble and swished his first trey, igniting the Maryland bench.
“It was great to see him show confidence out there,” Layman said. “We haven’t really seen that from him yet in a game situation. I was really happy for him to come out and really be aggressive.”
Said forward Robert Carter: “Jaylen, he’s a good player. Every day in practice he competes. Just getting the game reps, getting more comfortable on the floor, he’ll be fine and he’ll make an impact too. He can score, shoot the basketball and pass the basketball. The more and more he plays, the better he’ll be.”
Brantley completed the stretch by swishing a pair of free-throws with less than a minute remaining in the half.
“It gives me a lot of confidence. It shows Coach can trust me in the game more when Melo and Rasheed [Sulaimon] are out. Me getting the trust from teammates is huge, as well,” Brantley said.
He didn’t attempt a shot during the latter 20 minutes, although Brantley did find wing Jared Nickens open for an elbow 3-pointer late.
And, really, it’s Brantley’s passing and ball-handling prowess that Turgeon and the Terps want to see night in and night out. Maryland’s backcourt features only one other true lead guard in Trimble, so it’s imperative Brantley facilitate and run the offense.
“I think guard play is going to be big doing down the stretch this season. Melo and Rasheed are going to play a lot of minutes, and it’s a long season so they’re going to be tired,” Brantley said. “Me and Jared coming off the bench giving them breaks will be huge.”