NEW YORK — Inside a graveyard-silent locker room, stuffed with empty eyes and shaking heads, Dez Wells stared straight into floor, his words barely a whisper. All the talk about Maryland’s progression since its last trip to the Big Apple dissipated beneath the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Regressing into the sloppy bunch that fell to Kentucky in Brooklyn in November, the Terrapins ended their season with a 71-60 loss to Iowa in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
Positioned for redemption, searching for some season-ending hardware on Tuesday night, Maryland instead encountered the same issues that clinched its postseason fate in early March. Asked if he could draw any solace from a deep run unthinkable even four weeks ago, Maryland’s undisputed workhorse and emotional leader was blunt.
“No,” Wells said, allowing the word to linger before repeating himself. “No.”
With seven days between games, the Terps regrouped and rested in College Park, bracing for one final push. Except they hobbled into New York City a wounded platoon. Maryland barely had enough bodies for Monday’s workout at nearby Baruch College. Seth Allen’s pregame warmups were a pipe dream, the freshman still out with a fractured shooting hand. Wells nursed a bum knee, suffered back in the ACC tournament, while Alex Len battled an assortment of ailments that limited him in practice. Logan Aronhalt didn’t eat at all Tuesday and barely slept the night before, weakened by the same stomach virus that caught fellow senior James Padgett. Both were game-time decisions.
From the injuries to the sicknesses to Pe’Shon Howard’s impromptu, mid-game jersey change from No. 21 to No. 1, these Terps weren’t quite themselves.
“We weren’t the team we’ve been the past six, seven games,” Aronhalt said. “We paid the price tonight, because they played really well. We never really found a rhythm. We kept fighting and cut the lead to five a couple times but never really could get that one more basket to give us the momentum we needed.”
Before a modest crowd of 10,009, including plenty of red-clad Terps fans who soldiered up Interstate 95 for the occasion, Maryland opened the second half with little control, stumbling up and down the hardwood with reckless abandon more characteristic of its early-season inconsistencies than its recent rejuvenation. Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble took full advantage, finishing with a game-high 21 points, his fourth-straight 20-point game.
Simple passes and offensive sets became difficult chores. Nick Faust became a one-man roulette wheel, his unrestrained attacks resulting either in trips to the line or maddening turnovers. Thirty seconds after re-entering the game with three fouls, Wells picked up his fourth. By the time he fouled out with 2 minutes 22 seconds left, solemnly plopping into the last seat on Maryland’s bench, Iowa had pushed its lead, once whittled down to five points, back to eight.
Down 66-60 after another dunk from Len (team-high 16 points, nine rebounds, six blocks), Faust (14 points, 5 of 14 shooting) pounded into the lane with Jake Layman wide open in the left corner. Rather than dish for the high-percentage shot, Faust hoisted an off-balance runner that missed everything but the backboard. The possession encapsulated Maryland’s evening: promising at the outset before spilling over into disaster.
“We were out of rhythm,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “But we just compete so hard. I don’t know how we kept it close, to be honest with you. And it’s really because of Alex protecting the rim down there. All the free throws we missed, layups, it was amazing we kept it as close as we did.”
The Terps wrapped up their season with 25 wins for the first time in a decade, pieced together through a program-high 38 games that, down the road, should help a young group prepare for the future. Within minutes of the final buzzer, freshman Charles Mitchell tweeted, “Experience is learning from our own mistake ! I will this offseason and promise to be better next year! Thanks Maryland for a great season.”
But as Iowa’s cheerleaders hugged and its players rejoiced, Maryland’s players trudged into the tunnel, heads staring straight into the ground, its season officially bookended byan uncharacteristic yet painfully familiar outing.