AU freshmen players shine in opener at Maryland
In his first three seasons as head coach, Mike Brennan had never started a freshman on opening night.
On Friday’s 62-56 loss at No. 25 Maryland, he started two.
While point guard Sa’eed Nelson and center Mark Gasperini were playing in their first college game, you never would have guessed by their confident stature and impressive play.
“They’re really talented guys and I’m happy for them,” sophomore forward Delante Jones said on his freshmen teammates. “They worked hard and deserved their opportunity.”
On the Eagles first possession of the season, Gasperini attacked his defender, the bigger, more experienced Maryland senior center Damonte Dodd and scored on a smooth turnaround hook shot. Gasperini led the team in scoring with 14 points on 6-9 shooting, including 2-4 on three-pointers. His three point shot with 10 minutes, 37 seconds left in the second half gave the Eagles a temporary 42-40 lead.
Gasperini showed he could do more than just score. He grabbed three rebounds and had two assists, including an impressive cross-court pass to sophomore Delante Jones, who drained a wide-open three-pointer. The 6’10” big man was limited to 24 minutes due to foul trouble, but a few of his fouls were questionable and Gasperini played respectable defense throughout the night holding Dodd to just 1-3 shooting.
Nelson was just as impressive. Starting opposite Melo Trimble, one of the best point guards in all of college basketball, was no easy task. And while Trimble stole the show with a game high 22 points including some impressive finishes around the rim, Nelson more than held his own. Playing a game-high 35 minutes, Nelson tallied 12 points on 4-10 shooting.
He also calmly hit 4-5 free throws with 17,078 Maryland fans screaming in his face. Nelson’s five free throw attempts were the only ones the Eagles took all night. Nelson stayed poised the entire game, not committing a single turnover, a rarity for any point guard let alone a freshman. His defense was eye opening as well. Nelson’s three steals helped force Maryland into committing 18 turnovers, four of which were from Trimble.
“That’s why we got them. They’re good. Obviously (they have) a lot of work to do, but I think there’s so much more there that we can get out of them,” Brennan said. “But I was happy with them, how they did tonight.”
Senior forward Charlie Jones credits the freshmen for their hard work and dedication that started well before opening night.
“Those two have definitely been working hard all offseason and preseason and practice and they definitely were aggressive tonight,” Jones said. “I’m looking forward to seeing them grow and build and keep helping us get better.”
Despite their hard work, Nelson and Gasperini may have to wait a while to experience their first college basketball win. On Monday, AU heads to College Station, Texas for a showdown against the Texas A&M Aggies, coming off as Sweet Sixteen appearance last season.
The Eagles end their road trip on November 17 against Akron, a team that went 26-9 last season, bringing most of its core players back. AU’s home opener is on November 22 against Wagner, who just upset 18 ranked University of Connecticut at home. Regardless of the team’s record in the early stages of the season, the Eagles have to be optimistic about the future with impressive play from such a young group.