(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

After the handshakes and the congratulatory hugs, the Maryland basketball team headed off the court on Friday afternoon for what will almost certainly be the last time this season. The looks on the players’ faces betrayed little, other than exhaustion, having given all they had to give against a North Carolina team that was simply too big, too deep, too talented and too experienced.

Coach Mark Turgeon, head down, a grim look on his face, led the way to the tunnel that would take the Terrapins to the locker room. As Turgeon and his players passed the small contingent of Maryland fans seated in that corner of the building, they began to stand, slowly at first and then almost all at once. The Terrapins were rewarded with heartfelt applause because anyone who has watched them play this winter knows that the team’s 17-15 record and the 85-69 final score Friday were just about all anyone could reasonably hope for from this team.

“When I think about this season, I’m going to hold on to [Thursday’s victory over Wake Forest] and I’m going to hold on to the Iona game [an embarrassing 89-63 loss in November] because those were the benchmarks,” Turgeon said, slumped against a wall just outside his locker room 20 minutes after his first season at Maryland had ended. “Iona was about as bad as it could get and Wake was about as good as it could get.

“Carolina is just good, I mean really good. They lose [forward John Henson to a wrist injury] and come in with [freshman James Michael] McAdoo, and I’m not sure they aren’t better with McAdoo. That kid’s a lottery pick, I mean a lottery pick, and he’s having trouble getting minutes.”

Turgeon has a lot of decisions to make in the coming weeks. The first one appears to be made: Maryland is unlikely to get an National Invitation Tournament bid on Sunday but would be a prime candidate for one of the two second-tier pay-to-play tournaments that have sprung up in recent years. If point guard Pe’Shon Howard were healthy, Turgeon might be interested in playing. But he’s not and, given Maryland’s athletic budget crisis, it makes little sense to cough up $50,000 to play in an event no one really cares about.

There is also the issue of Terrell Stoglin, his best — and most challenging — player. The sophomore guard who shoots at will probably had his best game of the season Friday. He didn’t force shots the way he often does and produced 30 points on 11-of-21 shooting. He even had two assists and didn’t turn over the ball.

The question now is whether Stoglin has played his last game in a Maryland uniform. There is almost no chance he would be drafted if he decided to pass up his last two years of college but, reportedly, he has been back and forth all season on whether he wants to return. Like Jordan Williams, who left a year ago after his sophomore season, Stoglin isn’t crazy about going to school. Stoglin could opt to leave to play overseas, although he also has repeatedly told the coaching staff he plans to come back.

“Terrell and I probably have the most honest relationship of any player I’ve ever coached,” Turgeon said. “I tell him exactly what I think and he usually listens.” He smiled. “Usually the message lasts one game. This week it was two games. That’s progress.”

Turgeon has commitments from five players for next season and might try to sign one or two more before recruiting season is over. He has made it clear to all his underclassmen that they are going to have to prove to him that they want to be at Maryland — as students, as people and as players — if they’re going to come back next season.

Turgeon is willing to take a step back in the short term if it will mean taking two or three steps forward in the long term. That’s why the talk swirling about the possibility that Stoglin might leave hardly fazes him. He believes the players he has on the way, now and in the future, are capable of taking Maryland back to where everyone connected to the program believes it belongs.

It is almost difficult to believe that, after going to 11 straight NCAA tournaments between 1994 and 2004, the Terrapins have now missed the tournament for five of the past eight seasons. During that 11-season stretch, Maryland reached at least the Sweet 16 on seven occasions. It hasn’t been that far since 2003.

And yet the reaction of the fans on Friday is telling. They see potential in center Alex Len and freshman guard Nick Faust and the incoming recruits, regardless of what Stoglin decides. The only truly sad note was to see Sean Mosley, about as high-quality a person as has ever played at Maryland, go out on a 2-of-11 shooting day, his last two seasons ending without any kind of postseason bid.

“It’s tough to go out this way,” Mosley said in the quiet Maryland locker room. “No NCAA appearance really hurts. It was hard for me sometimes after three seasons with Coach [Gary] Williams to make the adjustment to Coach Turgeon. I still think if Pe’Shon had been healthy, we would have made the tournament.”

That’s not an outrageous statement. Any team that loses its point guard is bound to struggle. As talented as North Carolina is, if you take away guard Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels become a good team but hardly a great one. Maryland had even less margin for error this season.

“The funny thing is, even though people see Coach Turgeon as more laid-back than Coach Williams, he’s really not,” Mosley said, smiling. “In practice, when we didn’t do what we were supposed to do it was no different than with Coach Williams.”

Williams’s intensity and drive took Maryland to the pinnacle of college basketball in 2002. The Terrapins are a long way from there right now.

But, after a difficult couple of years, they appear to be pointed once again in the right direction.

For John Feinstein’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/
. For more, visit his blog at feinsteinonthebrink.com.