CHARLOTTESVILLE — With all the confidence someone could muster after another defeat that felt so familiarly demoralizing, Maryland guard Dez Wells looked dead ahead inside a hallway at John Paul Jones Arena and let out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’re going to get one. We’re going to get one, man.”
Once again, optimism reigned for the Terrapins, despite everything that just happened. They had crumbled against No. 17 Virginia, mounted a spirited comeback then fallen short in a 61-53 loss. Their depth had been ransacked by injury, their defense methodically dissected, their offense missing when it mattered most. The Cavaliers, it seemed, represented everything Maryland wished it could become, and yet Wells fired back when asked if that was the case.
“We have everything we need to be the best team we can be,” Wells said. “We’re going to peak at some point. I’m not sure when it is, but we’re coming. Virginia’s a great team, but I’m happy with the guys we have, the sets that we do, our coaches. I’m satisfied with our program.”
Few fans desperate for an NCAA tournament bid might agree, but the Terps were content seeking solace in the almost Monday night. Had forward Evan Smotrycz’s three-pointer not rimmed out, they would have been within one point, with no need to foul and the momentum swinging their way. Had they not fallen behind by 11 points earlier in the second half, swept up amid a torrent of shot-clock violations, shoddy defense and illegal screens, things might have been different too.
Instead, the expected eventually dawned. With six ACC games left, including three against ranked teams, Maryland has positioned itself in dire need of a miracle to avoid a second straight NIT bid, no matter how many improvements Coach Mark Turgeon and his players see.
“I thought it was a great college basketball game,” Turgeon said during his opening statement. “I was really proud of our group. We played really hard, we executed, we defended pretty well. We did a lot of things well. There’s a reason [Virginia is] 11-1 in the league. When the game was on the line their seniors stepped up and made some big plays, and we missed some shots that we were hoping we’d make. Couldn’t get them to go.”
Still, plenty of issues stood out. Once again Maryland received more fouls from Charles Mitchell, Jon Graham and Shaq Cleare (six) than points (four). It had little answer for Akil Mitchell (13 points on 6 of 8 shooting) and Joe Harris (16 of 19 points in the second half). Smotrycz was sorely off, missing his final nine shots, Seth Allen attacked the basket well but was 1 for 6 on threes and both Cleare and Layman ended the game on the bench with injury.
But the Terps also traded blows with a team that had steamrolled its way to seven straight ACC victories, rolling up leads of 19 points or greater in six of them. Since losing to Wisconsin here on Dec. 4, Virginia hadn’t lost at home and its average margin of victory in this building was 14.9 points.
“We are getting better,” Wells said. “It just came down to two or three possessions where we had lapses on defense … Every possession matters, and in this kind of environment, in this kind of atmosphere, you have to do everything to a tee. Everything has to be on point.
“I feel like we executed really well throughout he whole game. I felt like defensively we had two or three breakdowns on defense. That can cost you the game. Things like that happen, but we have to be tough enough to fight through those. I feel like we did that tonight. I make my two free throws, Evan hits a shot, the ball bounces our way one more time, I feel like we really could have won this game.”
Instead, the Terps have four days to prepare for No. 8 Duke, in their final visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium, content to stomach losing to a better team and soldering on.
“I think the ball was going their way tonight,” guard Nick Faust said. “We contained them very well in the second half. If Evan would have made the shot, it would have been a different story. But the ball didn’t go our way.”