John Auslander stood on the Madison Square Garden sideline, his back to the action, speaking with the teammate who just commandeered his chair. Auslander is a regular fixture at the end of Maryland’s bench, regularly standing (even more than Coach Mark Turgeon) and barking instructions onto the floor. But really, who could blame a dejected Dez Wells for plopping into the first open seat he saw, allowing the emotions to fester as the season ended with him on the bench, as Auslander’s words fell on deaf ears.
With 2 minutes 22 seconds left in Tuesday night’s National Invitation Tournament semifinal loss to Iowa, the Terrapins’ season on life support, Wells scraped after a loose rebound and heard the whistle. It was a cruel and uncharacteristically sloppy end for a player who has brought so much to this team, without whom this postseason run might not have even been possible.
“Dez has been great,” guard Logan Aronhalt said. “He’s been playing really well. We’ve been riding him, and it’s impressive, because he’s had a bum knee, too. He’s been really good for us, and I expect big things from him next year.”
Imagining this season without an eligible Wells is a torturous exercise. In five months, he morphed from castaway to transfer to leader to star. Ten straight double-digit scoring games helped carry Maryland through the postseason, including that 30-point virtuoso performance against Duke in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
Hampered by foul trouble, Wells never quite going against the Hawkeyes. He hit a nifty Euro-step runner early, but never made a jumper, a newfound staple of his arsenal. His nine points were his lowest since Feb. 23. His fourth foul, when Aaron White’s pump fake sent Wells soaring and then crashing atop the forward, occurred just 28 seconds after he checked back into the game.
“Yeah, I felt sorry for Dez,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Dez wants it so bad. He gets so excited, his foul trouble in the second half, three and he came out, picked up four right away, played smart and had a silly fifth foul. I think it hurt his rhythm. Just wasn’t his night. Wasn’t for a lack of effort. He’s got to learn from his big stage and handle it a little bit better. Wouldn’t trade him. The guy competes.”
Surrounded by reporters, wearing the same blank stare as his nearby teammates, Wells accepted full blame for Maryland’s semifinals shortcoming. Even though, without him, reaching Madison Square Garden would have been a distant pipe dream.
“Yeah, I’m not going to let this happen again to my team,” Wells said, quite matter-of-fact. “If you get to the final four, my team’s going to win. We should win it. This isn’t going to happen again.”
It’s the typical locker room maturity now expected of Wells. Win and defer to the collective effort. Lose and shoulder the burden. Except this load will be chained to Wells into the summer and next season.
“You learn what you can,” Wells said. “You take what you can from failure. And you use it as motivation. I’m pretty sure that’s what everybody is going to do. Once we take our break and we come back with our minds fresh, we’re going to get after it. As long as every day you get better, then you can take something from that. That’s all that matters.”