Maryland’s 61-51 win over Rutgers on Saturday night at times felt like a quiet victory against an overmatched mid-major in the middle of December. Large swaths of Xfinity Center sat empty as the second-to-last home game of the regular season tipped off. Commemorative newspapers remained folded over countless student seats. Terrapins Coach Mark Turgeon’s yells and claps were audible at times from press row, something that rarely happens, especially during a conference game in February.
For the announced crowd of 15,587, there also seemed to be a longing for the past early in the second half, when former stars Melo Trimble and Jake Layman were honored on the court. Before the game, Layman had told reporters that this team reminded him of the struggles the program went through during his sophomore year in College Park in 2013-2014 — Maryland finished 17-15 that season and missed the NCAA tournament — and Trimble’s presence alone was a reminder of just how good this program had it over the previous three seasons, when it won 79 games and made the tournament each year. As fans stood to applaud Layman and Trimble, Turgeon and his assistants — for the first time in seven years — stopped coaching during the timeout and joined in for the ovation.
“I was really happy for Jake and Melo. I wish it would have been a sold-out crowd, and a big game, but you can’t orchestrate all that stuff. I thought they got a great ovation,” Turgeon said. “Those two changed our program.”
Trimble sat courtside Saturday night, looking older and more mature and often smiling at some of his former teammates on the bench. This might not have been a sold-out and electric crowd that he had been accustomed to, but he did his best to contribute as a spectator. He clapped as Maryland looked dominant for the first time in weeks with a 17-4 start the game, and he cheered more after freshman Bruno Fernando threw down three thunderous dunks in the first half. That included a one-handed tomahawk slam off an inbound alley-oop to help Maryland (18-11, 7-9 Big Ten) build a 31-19 halftime lead. It was the kind of play that had to leave Maryland fans wondering what it might have been like had Trimble opted to return for his senior season and play with the flamboyant Fernando, who finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds.
“I was praying that he stayed and I could’ve played with him this year,” Fernando said.
But the reality is that Trimble (playing for the Iowa Wolves of the NBA G League) and Layman (a reserve for the Portland Trail Blazers) were signing autographs on the sideline Saturday while Maryland trudged toward the final week of the season.
This was an encouraging night after yet another close road loss at Nebraska earlier this week, but it will do nothing to help bolster Maryland’s NCAA chances. The Terrapins would likely need to win their final two games — at Northwestern on Monday night and in the home finale against Michigan next Saturday — and then make a magical run in the Big Ten tournament to have any realistic shot of making the field.
Saturday’s win ensured that Maryland will not finish in the bottom four of the league standings and thus will avoid playing in the first round of the conference tournament.
Fernando cemented his third double-double of the season with a layup on the first possession of the second half, and he hit another jumper to give his team a 24-point lead with 14:39 left. About seven minutes later, Fernando hit his first career three-pointer to make it 55-36 with 7:56 remaining. Aside from the coronation for Trimble, it may have been the happiest that Fernando has looked during this turbulent season. He backpedaled and raised his arms. He couldn’t stop smiling as the crowd cheered.
“The lob dunks, I’m going to have every time,” Fernando said. “The three-pointer, that was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
But then Maryland reverted to its usual late-game self, falling asleep on both ends of the floor as Rutgers (13-16, 3-13) cut into the deficit. The Scarlet Knights pieced together a quick 10-0 run to cut Maryland’s lead to nine points, and Turgeon could be heard screaming for a timeout as the home crowd groaned.
At that point, the Terrapins hadn’t scored in over four minutes. During this bizarre season, a Rutgers comeback didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. But sophomore guard Kevin Huerter (11 points) hit a runner in the lane after the timeout, and sophomore Anthony Cowan Jr. (14 points) made three free throws in the final 39 seconds to seal the win. It may have been fitting for Maryland to win this game by six points or fewer given that Trimble was in the crowd. Before the game, the program gave out promotional materials to the media touting Trimble’s career record in games within that margin: 30-8. Maryland has lost eight games by six points or fewer this season alone, clearly missing its former closer.
The nostalgia eventually waned after the game, when Turgeon acknowledged that his team must move on and find a way to finish the season strong. Before he did, he spotted Trimble in the media room after the win and invited his former star to ask the first question of the news conference.
“I just want to know if you miss me,” Trimble asked Turgeon, who after a few laughs eventually replied: “I miss you Melo. I miss you a lot.”