CHICAGO — Bruno Fernando, the lifeblood and energizing force of this Maryland team, sat still at his locker, hunched over with his hands on his forehead, elbows perched on his knees, eyes closed.
“We just had a terrible game,” Fernando said. “We lost the game. That’s the only thing that’s going through my head right now.”
He and the others searched for answers after Maryland’s trip to the Big Ten tournament ended early for the third straight season, this time with a second-round loss to 13th-seeded Nebraska, 69-61. Most of Fernando’s teammates occupied themselves on their phones, but those screens probably provided little distraction from the reality that they had just played 40 deflating minutes of postseason basketball, losing to a shorthanded team they beat twice during the regular season.
Fernando said the Terps “were flat the whole way,” while freshman guard Aaron Wiggins said he felt a brief spark when Maryland cut Nebraska’s lead to five early in the second half after a 9-0 run. The Terrapins had found some energy, and shots started to fall. But then the Cornhuskers answered with a 9-0 run of their own that erased Maryland’s efforts.
The Cornhuskers kept finding a counter when they needed it late to extend the Terrapins’ recent run of tournament misery. Maryland hasn’t won a postseason game since 2016, and that’s what was on Anthony Cowan Jr.'s mind after the defeat.
“It’s the only thing I’ve been thinking about,” said Cowan, the junior guard who is the only upperclassman in Maryland’s eight-man rotation. “I thought I was really motivated coming into this game.”
But the Cornhuskers (18-15) built a double-digit lead late in the first half and carried it through much of the second. Maryland finally trimmed the lead to eight with just under four minutes to go and then to six with two minutes left. But Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr., who had a game-high 24 points, hit a three-pointer, and No. 21 Maryland (22-10) could not get any closer.
Maryland is 2-5 in the Big Ten tournament since it joined the conference for the 2014-15 season. Coach Mark Turgeon’s postseason record at Maryland dropped to 8-11.
“We had a lot of guys, a lot of coaches, a lot of people who didn’t do well today,” Turgeon said.
Cowan led the Terps with 18 points, but the team’s offense was dormant for much of the game. Fernando, usually a dominant force, scored a season-low three points on 1-for-4 shooting. Nebraska double-teamed the sophomore the entire game, which isn’t something the Terps haven’t seen. But usually in those situations, Fernando can find an open teammate on the perimeter.
“We didn’t make them pay for what they were doing,” Turgeon said. “That was the disappointing thing.”
In the first half, Cowan and Fernando combined for four points and one field goal. As a team, Maryland committed seven turnovers and shot just 29.2 percent from the field, scoring just 20 points in the first 20 minutes.
With about eight minutes remaining, Turgeon received a technical foul arguing a no-call when Darryl Morsell missed a layup in transition. Glynn Watson Jr. hit both free throws, and then Maryland fouled to make Isaiah Roby’s layup a three-point play. Suddenly, the Terrapins’ nine-point deficit swelled to 14.
Even though Nebraska is down to six scholarship players and two walk-ons, the Huskers have shown fight lately. They closed the regular season with an overtime win over Iowa before handling Rutgers to open the Big Ten tournament.
The Huskers demonstrated again Thursday that they don’t need depth to win. With Palmer’s impressive showing paired with 19 points from Watson and 15 from Roby, the Huskers advanced to the quarterfinals, where they will play No. 4 seed Wisconsin. The last time these two teams played, Maryland held Watson scoreless on 0-for-10 shooting.
Less than two minutes into Thursday’s game, Turgeon screamed, “Wake up!” at his players, who began the game scoring just five points in more than six minutes. Nebraska started slowly, too, but the Huskers eventually pulled ahead later in the half on the strength of a 13-2 run. Wiggins said his team didn’t “come prepared to play,” but he placed the blame for that on the players, not the staff.
“We can’t continue to do that,” Wiggins said. “ . . . We’ve got to learn from this. Know that we’ve got to bring the energy and the confidence every game.”
But at this point, there’s not much time to work through issues. The next time Maryland loses, the season will be over. And as for why Maryland hasn’t performed well in March, Cowan doesn’t have an answer. But this postseason losing streak, he said, weighs on him.
“I just know we’ve got to be better,” Cowan said.
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