TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Jake Layman knows freshmen have a reputation for inconsistency. They’ll follow up a star-making performance with a dud of a game.
And as much as he may want to avoid feeding the stereotype, Layman has experienced his share of ups and downs during his rookie campaign. The Terrapins men’s basketball forward has alternated strings of double-digit games with modest outings, shuffling in and out of the starting lineup throughout the process.
In recent weeks, Layman’s production was trending downward. He seemed to disappear for stretches while swingmen Nick Faust and Dez Wells shouldered the offensive load. Entering Tuesday’s NIT quarterfinal, Layman had reached the 10-point mark just once in his past nine games and was shooting 31 percent from the field over that span. He was due to break out of his slump.
Tuesday night, he finally did. Layman erupted for 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting in the No. 2-seed Terps’ 58-57 win at top-seeded Alabama, helping his team earn a date in next Tuesday’s semifinal matchup with No. 3-seed Iowa at Madison Square Garden. The outburst marked the former U18 national team member’s highest point total since a Feb. 7 win at Virginia Tech, and his first time attempting more than seven shots in nearly a month.
“We recruited Jake as a shooter,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “We expect Jake to make shots.”
Layman lived up to expectations at precisely the right moment Tuesday. After a Levi Randolph dunk cut the Terps’ lead to 51-49 with 4:29 left, Wells found Layman standing alone at the top of the key. As the Alabama defense collapsed on the Terps’ top scorer, Layman netted a wide-open 3-pointer, silencing a raucous Coleman Coliseum crowd.
But Layman was hardly done. Randolph missed a jumper on the Crimson Tide’s ensuing possession, and the Terps again found the deep threat for a 3-pointer at the top of the key.
Layman had singlehandedly turned a two-point game into an eight-point game in just 49 seconds. Alabama managed a mini-rally of its own, but ultimately failed to close the deficit before the final buzzer.
“Six quick points helps a lot whenever,” said Layman, who’s averaging 5.5 points per game and ranks fourth on the Terps in made 3-pointers this season. “It was good to have.”
And Layman showcased more than his range Tuesday. He demonstrated why many Terps fans salivated over his high school highlight reel when he committed to the program in September 2011.
Late in the first half, Layman intercepted a Nick Jacobs inbounds pass and posterized the Crimson Tide forward with a one-handed dunk.
The highlight provided a rare glimpse of athleticism from a player who has spent much of his first season in College Park stroking from the perimeter. After all, 63.7 percent of Layman’s shot attempts have come beyond the arc. Many of the rest have been of the mid-range variety.
But Layman’s monstrous dunk was hardly a new addition to his arsenal. The same can’t necessarily be said of the former top-70 recruit’s defensive contributions Tuesday.
Turgeon spent much of the Terps’ nonconference slate publicly nitpicking Layman’s performance on the other side of the ball. The then-18-year-old would need to improve his defensive awareness, the second-year coach would say, if he hoped to lock down a spot in the rotation.
The message resonated. Layman’s defense steadily improved throughout conference play, and he has emerged as a key part of the Terps’ full-court press. Sitting atop the team’s diamond formation, the 6-foot-8 forward uses his length to disrupt passes and nag opposing ballhandlers.
He proved effective in both those aims against a slow-paced Alabama team that ranked near the bottom of the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio this season. Layman tallied a team-high-tying three steals, helping his team force the Crimson Tide into 14 giveaways — nearly four more than Alabama’s season average.
“Jake’s tough out there,” Turgeon said. “6-feet-8 and long, quick feet, quick hands. Our press is a lot better when he’s at the top.”
They’re also much improved with Layman making an impact in the box score. The Terps are 8-0 when he scores in double digits and 17-12 when he doesn’t.
So odds are Turgeon is hoping Layman doesn’t disappear in New York next week. The Terps may need him to take a temporary break from the typical rookie ups and downs if they hope to win an NIT title.
“It’s nice to have shooters,” Turgeon said. “We get mad at him when he doesn’t shoot.”