The score would be tied. That was a foregone conclusion. With 10.9 seconds left, Logan Aronhalt would bury the three-pointer, just like he’s done thousands of times in his lifetime. Maryland would hustle back on defense and take its chances in overtime against North Carolina, its miracle run through the ACC tournament on life support for a few more minutes.
But Aronhalt, Maryland’s best outside threat since transferring this offseason from Albany, curled off Alex Len’s screen too high. His shoulders weren’t squared to the basket. Neither were his feet. The distance wasn’t an issue: Aronhalt’s range transcends zip codes. The shoddy shooting form, however, caused an air ball. Instead of overtime, the Terps left Greensboro Coliseum teary-eyed with a 79-76 loss to North Carolina, their NCAA tournament chances likely exiting stage left, too.
“Logan’s a pretty good shooter,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. He was 48 percent from three a couple weeks ago. He hadn’t shot well lately. We got him a good look. If he had just curled a little tighter, Alex set a great screen, it’s hard to get an open three late in the game and we got one. Execution was tremendous. The amazing thing is we put ourselves in the position to have a chance, to do that.”
The heartbreaking end relegated another gritty Maryland effort to the back burner. Hours after toppling second-ranked Duke, the Terps emerged gassed against the Tar Heels. Turgeon didn’t sleep much. Neither did his players. The adrenaline rush masked their fatigue. For two games against Wake Forest and the mighty Blue Devils, they pressed and played up-tempo.
So a fresh North Carolina team dropped the hammer early. Dexter Strickland suddenly became unstoppable on deep two-point jump shots. Hours after blood spouted from an open wound in his non-shooting hand, a nasty cut that required eight stitches, P.J. Hairston hit his first two three-pointers, leading Coach Roy Williams to call him a “tough sucker.” The Tar Heels led by 12 in the first half.
“Coming out, it was their second game and it was our third game, I think we were a little gassed in the beginning,” point guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “But once we got our flow and picked it up, I think we were generally able to. I think everyone was running on fumes, almost.”
And yet the Terps still had a little more magic left. Down 13 points midway through the second half, they went on a 13-2 run, scoring on six straight possessions. But Leslie McDonald, a lifetime 34.3 percent three-point shooter, swished a gutsy attempt from the left corner. After Len hit 1 of 2 free throws on the other end, Reggie Bullock (team-high 15 points) canned a three on the left wing, and McDonald hit two free throws that swelled the lead to 68-58.
All throughout the second half, Turgeon told his players that the Terps would win. They believed, because what other choice did they have? Down double digits, another surge that included a Faust three-pointer, a Len dunk, a Wells layup and a nifty up-and-under move from Len put Maryland within 71-70. But Marcus Paige, relegated to the bench with foul trouble, burned Jake Layman baseline and lofted a floater over Len. On the ensuing entry pass near Maryland’s bench, Wells faked a bounce pass before going over the top. Bullock deflected and intercepted it. Two made free throws from James Michael McAdoo gave North Carolina enough of a cushion.
“We just kept fighting,” Aronhalt said. “That’s why Coach Turgeon was so proud of us after the game. We never gave up. We were down 10, 11, 12, 13 points multiple times in the game and we kept battling. We didn’t get very many plays our way. We missed layups, a couple open shots, we kept putting them on the free throw line so many times.”
In fact, both teams attempted 61 field goals, 21 three-pointers and each made 18 of 26 free throws. Nick Faust was sensational from deep, notching 17 points on five three-pointers. Len dropped 20 points and seven rebounds, while Wells followed up his all-world first two rounds with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Barring the NCAA selection committee defying all convention and awarding the Terps with a tournament bid, Maryland is almost certain to host a National Invitational Tournament game on Tuesday at Comcast Center. Turgeon’s teams have traditionally held Selection Sunday celebrations at the coach’s house, but nothing will happen this Sunday. They’ll return to College Park and work out, bracing to somehow play again after their most devastating loss to date.
“Yeah, waiting for results tomorrow, and the fact that the whole season could come down to just a few possessions, but in the big picture, we think that if we can get in the tournament, we’ll do well and play well,” Howard said. “If we get in the NIT, we think we can compete to win it. Just the fact that we’re playing, we really feel positive about our team.”