JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After the final buzzer, Jalen Smith walked slowly with small strides that oozed the pain of the loss. A couple of teammates tried to console him, but he still knelt to the floor before those fellow Maryland players and Coach Mark Turgeon lifted him back to his feet, his head bowed.
The team surrounded Smith, who removed his goggles before leaving the court with Bruno Fernando. Fernando hugged the freshman and told him that he loved him, that he was proud. But the words did little to salve the pain of a second-round exit from the NCAA tournament after Maryland’s rally from a 15-point deficit fell short in a 69-67 loss to LSU.
“Everybody’s going to feel bad if the game-winning shot’s on you,” Smith said.
Tremont Waters hit the winning layup for LSU with less than two seconds remaining, maneuvering around Smith to get to the basket. Maryland’s desperate full-court shot at the buzzer failed, and with it so did the Terrapins’ chance to play in the Sweet 16 in their backyard at Capital One Arena.
“He feels like the last play was his fault,” said sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, who also played with Smith at high school in Baltimore. “He’s just got to stop being so tough on himself. He played his tail off. I’m just trying to keep him up. He’s going to blame himself for a little while. That’s part of the game.”
In a somber locker room, Serrel Smith Jr. watched the game-winning play again on his phone. A “tough layup,” he said, adding that his teammate had no reason be down on himself. Jalen Smith was a key reason the Terrapins even had a chance late.
A three-pointer from LSU’s Skylar Mays with 40 seconds left had given the Tigers a 67-64 lead. Turgeon called a timeout and drew up a play designed for Anthony Cowan Jr. to get a quick basket. Instead, Cowan found an open Jalen Smith in the corner for a three-pointer with 25.8 seconds remaining, his first make from beyond the arc in five attempts.
With the game tied, LSU called a timeout to draw up a final play of its own.
“The players knew exactly what was coming,” Turgeon said. “We all knew what was coming. It was whether we were going to be able to stop it or not.”
Waters let the clock drain under 10 seconds before driving to his right. Maryland opted not to foul, and the 6-10 Smith popped out on the 5-11 Waters near the foul line. Smith stayed with Waters to the baseline, with Fernando providing help. Neither defender was able to deflect the LSU guard’s scoop shot, which kissed off the glass and through with 1.6 seconds remaining.
The No. 3 seed Tigers (28-6) advanced to an East Region semifinal Friday, when they will meet the winner of Saturday night’s game between No. 2 Michigan State and No. 10 Minnesota.
The Terrapins looked lifeless for the first 25 minutes, falling into a 46-31 deficit after Turgeon received a technical foul. If the move was a ploy from Turgeon, it worked. The young Terps, seeded sixth in the tournament, found a spark behind a switch to a zone defense.
“While he was still arguing with the refs and meeting with the other coaches, the leaders, me and Andrew [Terrell], kind of got the guys together and said, ‘We’ve got to fight. It’s win or go home,’” Morsell said. “I told them: ‘Coach Turgeon is fighting for us. We’ve got to fight for him.’”
Maryland (23-11) took its first lead, 57-55, with 5:52 left in the game on a pair of free throws from Jalen Smith. From there, the teams exchanged big shots right down to the final buzzer.
While the sting of the game-winner will linger for Smith, plenty of other moments will flash through the players’ minds. Some shots rolled in and then out. Maryland missed seven of its 23 free throws and suffered through an abysmal shooting performance in the first half, shooting just 28.6 percent from the field.
“Pretty sure everybody is feeling they could have done something better to help us out,” freshman guard Eric Ayala said.
Against a formidable LSU frontcourt, Fernando grabbed 15 rebounds, and Smith, who has struggled at times this year, won his share of matchups inside, too. Fernando scored 10 points, and Smith scored 15 to follow his huge showing against Belmont in the first round. Smith added a season-high five blocks to a stat line he probably won’t want to remember thanks to how the game ended.
LSU has navigated this tournament without Coach Will Wade, who was suspended after reports by Yahoo and ESPN described a federal wiretap of Wade discussing an offer to a player and his family. But despite the late surge from the Terps, interim coach Tony Benford led this LSU team to the Sweet 16.
Maryland trailed by 15 twice in the first half, including when just 1:01 remained. But then freshman Aaron Wiggins, who scored 11 points Saturday, hit back-to-back three-pointers with a Maryland defensive stop sandwiched between to cut the Tigers’ lead to nine at intermission.
But then came the climb back and finally a lead. LSU’s late answer, however, left the Terps in shock. Fernando sat with a towel over his head in the locker room. He and the others searched for words, pausing between thoughts, sometimes with a sigh.
“Guys gave everything they had,” Turgeon said. “I just feel bad for my team because people are so critical of me and my team, and we’re the fourth-youngest team in the country and we battled. We gave it everything we had. They deserve better. They deserved better today.”