ORLANDO — The death rattle of the Maryland men’s basketball season came with less than 10 minutes remaining in a 76-65 loss to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night, with the Terrapins trudging through another one of their inexplicable second-half scoring droughts. This one wasn’t as long as some of the others, but it was the most painful. It lasted 4:58, spoiled a six-point lead and sent the Terrapins into the offseason wondering what their offensive identity ever was.
There were catcalls from disgruntled Maryland fans at Amway Center, most of which were directed at Coach Mark Turgeon, a final pang at the end a season that began 20-2, the best in start in school history. Turgeon was a Big Ten coach of the year candidate, but he watched the campaign end with losses in seven of the final 11 games.
There will be plenty of questions to answer for his team in the weeks to come, including whether junior point guard Melo Trimble will hold off on the NBA draft and return for his senior season. He got a glimpse of just how powerful Maryland’s young core will be in the years to come Thursday night, with Kevin Huerter scoring a team-high 19 points and fellow freshman Justin Jackson adding 14.
But it was Trimble who again tried to will his team out of a late offensive slump after Xavier used a 21-4 run to take an 11-point lead in the second half. He simply couldn’t on a night in which he finished with 13 points and sat in limbo afterward, the pain of this setback too fresh to reflect too far into this team’s season or his own potential NBA future.
“I just know that we weren’t a second-half team towards the second half of the season,” Trimble said.
Xavier (22-13), which was led by Trevon Bluiett with 21 points, will advance to face Florida State, an 86-80 winner over Florida Gulf Coast, in the second round Saturday.
Maryland (24-9) had arrived here a day early both to escape a winter storm and hit the reset button after six losses in its previous 10 games, with some players spending parts of the week golfing and fishing in the Florida sun. But Turgeon also had prepared his team to flip the switch offensively as it prepared for just its second game in 12 days, building more scrimmage time into his practices to help simulate game situations for every man in his rotation.
It had little effect early Thursday night. Maryland endured two scoring droughts of more than three minutes in the first half, beginning the game shooting just 3 for 13 from the field, including 1 for 8 from the three-point line. It was reminiscent of the fallow stretches that had plagued this team the past six weeks.
“We just went through a cold spell and couldn’t make shots, couldn’t get stops. They were just scoring, and we weren’t,” Jackson said.
But while Maryland’s offensive problems reared up in an ugly and familiar fashion — its problems against the zone, its lack of an interior scorer, the long field goal droughts — it again proved to be a resilient bunch. Huerter and Jackson combined for 19 points in the first half to help Maryland stay within striking distance, and Trimble finished a layup after a steal in the final minute of the first half to give his team a 36-35 lead at the break.
Maryland began the second half much like it did a week ago against Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals — with more offensive pop, enough to take control of a 46-40 lead on consecutive layups from Trimble and freshman Anthony Cowan Jr. But as in that loss to the Wildcats at Verizon Center, when the Terrapins blew a 10-point lead — or in any of their four conference losses at home — they struggled to forge an offensive identity down the stretch.
Turgeon believed his team was not the same after a loss to Wisconsin in late February, during which junior center Michal Cekovsky suffered a season-ending ankle injury and the coach challenged its toughness. Maryland worked tirelessly to reverse course but never could.
“But we never stopped trying to be the same team,” Turgeon said. “Our guys gave everything they had. We ran into a team that is playing well right now.”
The Terrapins not only struggled on the boards — Xavier held a 34-24 rebounding advantage — but also struggled to contain Bluiett, who scored 18 points in the second half. But the most prevalent problem was dealing with Xavier’s defense, which toggled from man-to-man to zone schemes to swarm Trimble at every turn.
Maryland’s scoring drought of 4:59 was compounded by the streaky shooting of Bluiett and sophomore forward Kaiser Gates, who nailed a corner three-pointer to give his team a 61-50 lead with just more than nine minutes remaining. Trimble, perhaps sensing that this could be his final chance to play in the NCAA tournament, tried to save Maryland.
He took a charge near half-court with his team trailing by seven with 3:43 remaining. But he missed a three-pointer on the ensuing possession, slumping his shoulders after his shot hit the front of the iron, then followed by missing one of two free throws.
With his team down by eight with just over two minutes remaining, Trimble tried to make a play in the lane but tripped over his own feet and traveled. After it was over, with hecklers in the crowd chirping, Trimble pulled his uniform over his eyes and walked off the court.
“We just couldn’t play a complete game all season,” Trimble said. “Tonight we just had a lead, and we couldn’t capitalize on it.”
● FLORIDA STATE 86, FLORIDA GULF COAST 80: Dwayne Bacon scored a team-high 28 points as the third-seeded Seminoles (26-8) survived a tough challenge from the Eagles (26-7).