JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Those last 30 seconds Saturday, they are Jalen Smith’s season, and they are the essence of college basketball at this time of year. In one moment, all the work he put in and the confidence he sometimes misplaced joined him in the corner, staring at a wide-open, game-tying three-pointer. In the next moment, the play he knew was coming — ball screen at the top of the key, with slippery LSU point guard Tremont Waters ready to drive — came right at him, just as his coaches had said it would.
Smith is 6-foot-10, every bit of it. When those final 30 seconds elapsed — half a minute in which he lived everything the NCAA tournament has to offer — he was a puddle. He made the three-pointer. He couldn’t stop Waters’s drive. The former nearly made him a hero. The latter, well, it left him not only bawling on the court but falling on the sword afterward.
“I kind of felt like it was my fault. The layup was on me,” Smith said. “I should’ve been able to get it, but I didn’t. I feel like I failed.”
There’s so much to digest about the 69-67 loss that ended Maryland’s season with an unceremonious kick to the groin. How and why did the Terrapins get down 15? What was Coach Mark Turgeon’s transgression that led to a technical foul in the second half, two free throws that happened to coincide with the final margin? Will we ever be able to count the Maryland shots — flat-out layups, some of them — that hit one side of the rim, then the other but bounced out anyway? What if the Terps hadn’t missed five second-half free throws?
It’s what makes it all so hard. All of those thoughts, they hung in the little locker room at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena where the Terps folded themselves into stalls and stared blankly into space afterward. But what’s worse than that: They will hang with the Terps through the spring. They will hang there through the summer. They leave a Maryland program that once went to seven Sweet 16s in a 10-year period with one appearance in the tournament’s second weekend in the 16 years since.
“It’s a crazy game,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said.
Did we mention that, had the sixth-seeded Terps squeezed past the third-seeded Tigers, they would have played that Sweet 16 game at Capital One Arena? They could have taken Metro to an NCAA tournament game.
Smith, among others, would have crawled there.
“It’s a hard thing,” he said, almost inaudibly.
These Terps hadn’t experienced the NCAA tournament. Now they know it all too well. It’s an expansive thing that provides credibility to a season and credence to a program and spans from the anticipation of Selection Sunday to, in the Terps’ case, the elation of a could-have-gone-the-other-way first-round victory over Belmont and, finally, to the abject disappointment after that final horn Saturday.
“They deserve better,” Turgeon said. “They deserved better today.”
Distill it to that last half minute. If you were welcoming visitors from Mars and you were asked to explain to them why the NCAA tournament leaves even bystanders feeling they need intravenous fluids afterward, you could do worse than sliding in the tape of Saturday’s game, starting with Maryland coming out of a timeout, trailing 67-64 with 32.5 seconds remaining because LSU’s Skylar Mays had just calmly drained a three.
Maryland’s idea, with that much time left, was to get junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. a two-point shot from the left side. The Terps could then foul quickly and end up with the ball facing a deficit as small as one point but no bigger than three.
But when Cowan got into the lane, Mays was on him, and hulking LSU forward Naz Reid lurked behind him. So Cowan looked to the corner, where Smith stood by himself.
On Thursday, Smith had keyed the victory over Belmont by playing ferociously around the rim, making 8 of 9 shots and not hoisting a single three-pointer. On Saturday, though, he got caught up in so much of what felled the Terrapins early — poor shot selection. When Cowan’s pass arrived in his hands, Smith had taken four three-pointers and missed them all.
That fits perfectly into Smith’s yo-yo of a freshman season. But here’s the thing: At that moment, in the final minute of his 33rd game, he was no longer a freshman. What was he to do?
“I just saw a wide-open three,” Smith said. “So I just took it.”
With 25.8 seconds left, it rattled through the net. The red-clad Terrapins section in the stands thundered its approval.
When LSU followed with a timeout, Turgeon told his charges what to expect. “We showed them middle ball screen,” he said, and that’s precisely what happened. Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell guarded Waters, the Connecticut kid who originally committed to Georgetown but decided against it when former coach John Thompson III was let go.
And here came Reid on Morsell’s left, setting the pick. That left Waters, just 5-11, driving around Smith, who had almost a foot on him. “I tried to step up and stop him, but he just somehow got it to the basket,” Smith said. Waters scooped the ball underneath Smith. Terps forward Bruno Fernando slid over for help.
“I wish he wouldn’t have gotten around Jalen,” Turgeon said. “And I wish if he did get around Jalen, Bruno would have pinned it on the glass. But it didn’t happen that way.”
The way it happened, the ball bounced high off the glass and through with the clock showing 1.6 seconds. When Eric Ayala’s last-second, full-court heave didn’t manage to hit rim, Turgeon could only stand on the sideline, frozen, as his players collapsed and the Tigers sprinted to tackle Waters.
“I was in the bottom of the dog pile,” Waters said, “and just the feeling, it feels amazing.”
Maybe someday, Smith will know that feeling. In the immediate aftermath, it seemed a galaxy away. He was sobbing when he made his way to center court, sobbing when he put his head on Fernando’s shoulder, sobbing when he walked past the Maryland fan section — which stood and cheered its team — into the tunnel toward the locker room.
“He’s young, just turned 19,” Ayala said. “It’s hurting him. It’s hurting everybody right now.”
There was a lot of talk afterward about how such an experience will make the Terps closer, how they will be better prepared for such a moment a year from now. But Fernando is projected to be an NBA lottery pick, so what’s more likely is this mix won’t return.
We don’t know, either, about Smith’s future. But we do know he added something to his past on Saturday, a half of a minute in which the entirety of what March feels like could be experienced through him.
“I’ll be better because of it,” he said. It was 30 minutes after the game. His eyes were still puffy.