LOUISVILLE — The last traces of Maryland’s true potential were strewn across the KFC Yum! Center court Thursday night. When a 79-63 loss to top-seeded Kansas in the South Region semifinals was finally sealed, Terrapins Coach Mark Turgeon conceded his surrender by adjusting his tie and making the long walk to the scorers’ table. He met Jayhawks Coach Bill Self there, shaking the hand of the man who was a graduate assistant while Turgeon was a scrappy point guard at Kansas in the 1980s. They eventually went their own ways, Self to the Elite Eight and Turgeon on a bitter journey back to College Park.
Turgeon will ponder what could’ve been during this hype-filled season, and it will be all the more painful because of what transpired Thursday night. Turgeon had his alma mater right where he wanted it. Maryland showed up with full-throttle effort and trailed by just two at halftime, looking poised for the transcendent win that had eluded it all season.
But the Terrapins returned to their self-destructive habits by the late stages of the game, looking lost on the offensive end. Maryland shot just 34 percent from the field in the second half and made just 5 for 25 from three-point range overall and it never had an answer for Jayhawks star Perry Ellis, who finished with 27 points.
“Tonight just wasn’t our night,” junior forward Robert Carter Jr. said. “Of course we wanted to do more, but we did some things Maryland hadn’t done in a while.”
Kansas (33-4), which never trailed in the second half, advanced to face Villanova in the South Region final on Saturday.
Maryland (27-9) largely outplayed Kansas through the first 20 minutes, feeding off spirited offensive play from Rasheed Sulaimon (18 points) and bothering the Jayhawks with its length. It forced nine consecutive missed shots and a Kansas scoring drought that lasted over five minutes.
“I don’t think we have anything to hold our heads down about. We lost to a great team,” Sulaimon said. “[The hype] doesn’t matter in March. They were a preseason top five team. All the 16 teams left are good teams.”
Even after senior Jake Layman was issued a technical foul for hanging on the rim with a dunk that made it 18-12 with 9 minutes 34 seconds remaining in the first half, even as Melo Trimble, Diamond Stone and Carter all ended up with two fouls apiece right before halftime, even as it shot just 2 of 12 from three-point range in the first half, Maryland looked encouraged to only be trailing 36-34 as it ran back into the locker room.
Turgeon and his staff focused on refining the Terps’ defense and rebounding and extending the bench this week in preparation for Kansas. The coaches confiscated cell phones from players to limit distractions, and the moves provided a breath of fresh air for the pressure-bitten Terrapins. But it ultimately wasn’t enough against an opponent that won its 17th straight game. The 9:40 tip off on Thursday gave Turgeon and his assistants extra time to put the finishing touches on a game-plan designed to neutralize Kansas’s athleticism and keep Ellis in check, and the group came together for what they hoped was not a final team dinner four hours before tip-off.
Both teams traded haymakers to start the second half. Maryland was never terrified of the moment, and proved it on three consecutive possessions. Center Damonte Dodd stepped out to hit a rare deep jumper. Sulaimon barreled toward the basket and sacrificed his body for the umpteenth time on the next possession, finishing a runner. And Layman threw down another slam in traffic on the next possession to tie it. The problem was Kansas had an answer every time. Wayne Selden Jr. ripped off five points in a span of 31 seconds to push the lead to 50-43 and push Maryland into its most vulnerable position of the night. Kansas, which also got 19 points from Selden, controlled the boards with a 43-28 rebounding advantage, including 22-8 in the second half.
“They just went inside more,” Trimble said. “In the second half they outrebounded us and just took control of the game.”
Trimble finished with 17 points on 5-for-16 shooting, but he missed a series of open three-pointers at critical junctures in the second half. That included a miss with the Terps down seven with just under eight minutes left, and Kansas responded with a quick 6-0 burst that effectively put the game out of reach.
Maryland could very lose all five starters to the NBA draft in the weeks to come — freshman center Stone, sophomore guard Trimble and junior Carter are all viable pro prospects who will have difficult decisions to make — and while the chatter was a moot point Thursday, the matchup against the muscular Jayhawks provided one final backdrop on just how richly talented Turgeon’s group was this season. It was far from wasted. They will be able to dote on a string of accomplishments, including 27 wins and the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003.
But this season will also be remembered as a perpetual struggle for the star-studded group to play in complete harmony and reach its goal: to bring the school its second national championship.
Tears welled up in Trimble’s eyes as he returned to dead-quiet locker room after the loss. He choked up as he sought words to describe this team and everything it has been through. He thanked Sulaimon for the mentorship. He listed memories. They lounged on beaches in Cancun, wandered the streets of New York City and survived a snow storm in Nebraska. They played at North Carolina’s Smith Center and Madison Square Garden on their way to the Sweet 16, where Trimble’s season — and the Terps’ — came to a premature end.
“Everything was just exciting this whole year,” Trimble said. “We just came up short.”