In ACC tournament swan song, ‘it just wasn’t meant to be’ for the Terrapins

John Feinstein
Columnist March 13

It was a fitting ending, both for the Maryland men’s basketball program in the ACC and this Terrapins season.

On Thursday afternoon, the Terrapins set out to save a campaign that was almost — but not quite yet — lost. Perhaps if Maryland could get past Florida State in the ACC tournament’s second round, it might be able to beat Virginia for the second time in five days and then with some momentum going into the weekend . . .

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

No.

As Mark Turgeon said in his final ACC postgame news conference: “It just wasn’t meant to be — today or this season.”

The game ended on what was essentially a broken play by the opposition that somehow culminated in a dunk. With the score tied at 65 and the clock running down, Florida State’s Ian Miller penetrated and tried to slip the ball to Okaro White. The ball was deflected but still got to White, who bobbled it and then got the ball to 7-foot-3 Boris Bojanovsky cutting along the baseline. Bojanovsky, whose hands don’t exactly remind anyone of Tim Duncan’s, managed to catch the ball and dunk it with 0.4 seconds left.

Dez Wells’s desperation heave was off the mark, and the meaningful portion of Maryland’s season — and its time in the ACC — was suddenly, stunningly over.

“C’mon, point-four seconds?” a visibly upset Turgeon said, still clearly angry and emotional 30 minutes after the game had ended. “Why couldn’t it have been one second later? What’s really disheartening is the way we lost. We got a hand on the ball . . .” He paused. “That’s kind of the way it’s been all year.”

Maryland is 17-15 and will almost undoubtedly play in the National Invitation Tournament next week, although Turgeon didn’t even want to discuss that possibility Thursday. This was not a season that was supposed to end with any discussion of the NIT. After just missing the NCAA tournament a year ago, the Terrapins began this season with hopes that their last year in the ACC would be a memorable one.

It was. Unfortunately.

Other than Sunday’s win over a Virginia team that appeared uninterested for much of the afternoon, the Terrapins’ winter was littered with almosts. Connecticut. George Washington. Duke. Syracuse. Pittsburgh. And, finally, Florida State at Greensboro Coliseum — a place filled with ghosts of Maryland near-misses past.

Two of the Terrapins’ three ACC championships — 1984 and 2004 — took place here, but there are far more bad memories than good ones: the extraordinary overtime loss to North Carolina State in 1974, when Maryland was no worse than the third-best team in the country and played nowhere in the postseason; the Buck Williams/Kenny Dennard “undercut” game during the blizzard of 1980; the stunning last-second loss to Georgia Tech in the 1986 semifinals in Len Bias’s last ACC game; the “come-from-ahead” overtime loss to North Carolina in 1998. The list goes on.

Thursday was the last chapter of the story. In the movies, the Terrapins win four games, take home one last trophy and land their first NCAA tournament bid since 2010. In real life, Bojanovsky dunks and Turgeon exits the building with steam still coming from his ears.

“Point-four seconds,” he kept saying over and over again as if he still couldn’t quite believe it.

Turgeon has never made any bones about the fact that Maryland’s move to the Big Ten is hardly a dream come true for him. One of the reasons he came to Maryland was to coach in the ACC, to compete against Duke and North Carolina and not Michigan State and Ohio State.

“It was something we talked about before the game and at halftime,” he said. “We knew how much this tournament meant to our people.”

There were plenty of other reasons for the Terrapins to be both emotional and frustrated Thursday. They played with Zach Lederer on their minds and forward Evan Smotrycz, a usual starter, on the bench.

Lederer was the 20-year-old former team manager whose battle with cancer inspired the team and the entire school. On Tuesday, two months after being taken off life support, he died — a loss that wasn’t unexpected but still cut deeply into the collective heart of the team.

Smotrycz’s absence from the court had a wholly different effect. He had suffered back spasms in the Virginia game but was able to practice Wednesday. “We thought he was going to play,” Turgeon said. “Then, 40 minutes before the game, my trainer told me he couldn’t play, that he didn’t want to play. I met with him, and he said his back was tight, so we didn’t play him.”

Turgeon — already unhappy with the entire day — got testy when he was asked whether Smotrycz could have played but had opted out. “No,” he said. “The trainer said if he tried to play he wouldn’t be effective.”

Smotrycz might have made a difference in the outcome if only because his presence would have allowed Turgeon to play Nick Faust — who had a brutal afternoon — less than 35 minutes. He also could have rested Jake Layman more often. Layman was clearly gassed in the final minutes. His last four jump shots, each an open look at the basket, all hit the front rim.

Through all of that, the game was right there for Maryland to win, especially after Montay Brandon was called for bumping Wells in the lane with 15 seconds to go and Wells made both free throws to tie the score. Overtime seemed inevitable.

Except it wasn’t.

After his final heave didn’t go in, Wells slammed his hand to the floor in disgust, anger and frustration. That gesture — that feeling of helplessness — was this Maryland season in microcosm. Wells had to be chased down by assistant coaches to come back for the postgame handshakes.

When the postgame talk was over, the Terrapins headed down the familiar hallway one last time to where their bus waited to take them home. It was left to Chuck Walsh, a former Maryland sports information director who now holds the same job at Florida State, to write the final epitaph.

Fifteen banners, one for each school, hang from the rafters of Greensboro Coliseum. “I guess,” Walsh said, “the only thing left to do is go take their banner down.”

The banner was still in the rafters as the tournament — and the ACC — played on without Maryland.

It didn’t matter. The Terrapins had left this haunted building.

Forever.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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