CLEMSON, S.C. — Deep inside the hallways of Littlejohn Coliseum, as the prospect of digesting another close loss waged war against his desire for optimism, Coach Mark Turgeon leaned against a brick wall, onto which was painted a massive, growling Clemson tiger. Another night of dejection had bludgeoned the Maryland men’s basketball team, in the same way that had spiraled the Terrapins from NCAA tournament hopeful into thoroughly average, so Turgeon stared straight ahead, as if somehow the outcome of Saturday afternoon would change if he just focused hard enough.
“I thought we played well enough,” Turgeon had said moments earlier, in the aftermath of a 77-73 defeat to Clemson in double overtime. “Just couldn’t get it done.”
The movie poster for this horror film of a season gone awry would contain that exact phrase scrawled across the bottom, perhaps below the lasting image from so many similar games: the Terps, trudging through the tunnel and into the locker room, heads bowed and shaking in disbelief. Maryland had spent February battling to the edge and coming up short, losing one-possession games to Duke and Syracuse. Maybe scoring the first conference road victory against a winning team under Turgeon, in its final ACC road game ever on the second day of March, would make things right.
Instead, the Terps went scoreless for the final five minutes of regulation, misfiring on three possessions when their best player, guard Dez Wells (16 points), had the ball. Then they needed a clutch three-pointer from Evan Smotrycz (19 points) to force double overtime. At that point, the players were gassed but focused. They huddled together and told themselves this game would be different.
“Everybody was hyped,” said point guard Seth Allen, who scored a team-high 20 points. “Everyone was excited. . . . It was like, ‘We’re going to take it. We’re going to take it.’ ”
And then, just like the opener against Connecticut when Wells missed a three-pointer in the final seconds, just like an upset bid at Duke when forward Charles Mitchell’s hook shot bounced away, just like last Monday when Allen’s desperation heave against Syracuse struck the backboard and rim before bouncing away, it all unraveled. Clemson’s Damarcus Harrison put the hosts ahead with a three, 73-71, and a turnover on the ensuing Terps possession all but sealed it.
These were exactly the small lapses Maryland couldn’t afford in such a crucial moment. By this point in the season, two games remaining until the ACC tournament and still winless against the RPI top 50, the team has shifted its attention toward seeding for Greensboro, N.C., knowing only a championship there can catapult the program into March Madness for the first time in four seasons.
“It’s been tough, there’s no doubt about it,” Turgeon said. “Today was tough. Double-overtime loss, play well enough, couldn’t get it done. I told the kids in the locker room, we have to have a short memory. We’ve got to get fresh. We’ve got to figure out a way to play well Tuesday night and win.”
From fouling shooters behind the arc to traveling in the lane to missing free throws, it seemed neither side truly wanted the afternoon to end, even though bodies were dragging up and down the floor in exhaustion. Both sides shot worse than 36 percent from the field, and the game began with four combined points over 19 possessions by the first media timeout.
A monster effort from forward K.J. McDaniels, who had 26 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks, helped the Tigers stave off several potential game-winning shots. But big shots from point guard Rod Hall in the second overtime helped them avoid a tie in the conference standings at .500 with the Terps, who close the regular season with consecutive home games against Virginia Tech and Virginia, seeking the reversal of fortune that has been so elusive all winter.
“Whether it’s one point or 10, no one likes to lose,” Smotrycz said. “We’re not playing any less hard because of it. We’re all resilient. Like I said, we’re looking to get on a roll.”