Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon talked all week about changing the narrative, about his young team regaining the confidence and consistency it showed during a program-best 20-2 start to the season.
In the end, all Maryland did was change the opponent, the city and the venue Thursday night.
A week after getting bounced out of the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals with a second-half collapse against Northwestern, sixth-seeded Maryland saw its season close with a similar storyline in a 76-65 loss to 11th-seeded Xavier in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64 at Amway Center.
“We worked hard, guys. I know it doesn’t show on the scoreboard,” Turgeon said. "The thing I was proud about this team was that we just kept fighting. It hadn’t gone our way for about a month. Ever since [Michal Cekovsky] went down, we haven’t been the same team.”
With the Terps leading by six points early in the second half after holding Musketeers star Trevon Bluiett in check in the first half, they watched the junior guard heat up and lead Xavier (22-13) on a 21-4 run that was similar to the 20-2 run by the Wildcats last Friday at Verizon Center in Washington.
In one stretch against the Musketeers, the Terps went scoreless for 4:57 and were outscored 14-0.
"We just didn't make any shots. I felt when we went up six, we got too relaxed," junior guard Melo Trimble said. "They started hitting shots, and running their offense really well. We just couldn't capitalize [on taking a lead]."
Asked later if the team struggled with its offensive identity, Trimble said, “I don’t know how to answer that. I just know we weren’t a second-half team toward the second half of the season as we were in the first half. We just couldn’t play a complete game all season.”
Maryland showed a little more heart by cutting a pair of 11-point deficits to six on a free throw by Trimble with 2:47 to go, but could not get any closer. It was the seventh loss in the past 11 games for Maryland (24-9).
It was also the first loss in the opening game of the NCAA tournament for the Terps since they fell to the College of Charleston in Memphis in 1997 after a streak of 14 straight victories.
More significantly, it could also signal the end of Trimble’s Maryland career.
Asked if he has thought putting his name in the NBA draft and going to the league’s combine without signing with an agent, Trimble said, “No. I haven’t thought about that.”
If Trimble decides to forego his senior year, he finished it on a down note, with 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting, including just 1-for-9 on 3-pointers. Freshman guard Kevin Huerter led the Terps with 19 points and five assists. Freshman forward Justin Jackson had 14 points.
“The experience that our freshmen had this year is amazing,” said Turgeon, who started Huerter and point guard Anthony Cowan every game and Jackson all but three. “What they were able to do, really you can say it was Melo’s team because it was. But these three guys, what they had on their plate...”
Said Trimble, “It’s tough to go out this way, but this year we had three freshmen that played a lot all season. I couldn’t be any more proud of the way they played this season. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get to where we wanted to get to this season. But it’s basketball.”
Trimble said Thursday’s performance would not impact his decision.
“I’m just going to let this one rub off and I’ll make my thinking process when the time is right once I get back home and just be able to relax for a minute,” Trimble said.
As they did early in the season and again late in the season, the Terps struggled against Xavier's zone defense. They also got little from their bench, which was outscored 30-13 by Xavier's reserves.
“We found rhythm against their zone in the first half because they played one defense most of the time,” Turgeon said. “The second, we just didn’t have the same rhythm.”
Bluiett led Xavier with 21 points, including 18 in the second half. Reserve center Sean O’Mara added a career-high 18. The Musketeers will meet the winner of Thursday night’s Round of 64 game between third-seeded Florida State and 14th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.
After the Terps led by one point at halftime and by as many as six after hitting their first two shots of the second half, Bluiett heated up for Xavier. After scoring just three points in the first half, Bluiett hit his first six shots of the second, four of them 3-pointers. He finished the half 6-for-7 from the field.
As Bluiett buried one shot after another, the same sense of desperation came over the Terps. The offense seemed rushed, the defense confused. The fans who had made the trip to get out of the snow and the cold seemed frustrated by another second-half collapse.
When his final 3-point attempt clanged off the front of the rim, Trimble just stared at the basket, shaking his head. When the buzzer sounded, he pulled his uniform to his face to wipe away the sweat, and perhaps a few tears.
“Unfortunately we weren’t able to get past the first game,” Trimble said. “It is what it is. We’re all going to move on. The sun’s going to rise tomorrow.”