CHICAGO — As difficult as it is to beat a team three times in the same season, it might be even tougher to knock out the defending champion in the Big Ten Conference men's basketball tournament.
Seeded second and ranked eighth nationally, Maryland learned that the hard way Saturday in the semifinals of its first Big Ten tournament. The Terps went cold after a torrid start and lost to third-seeded Michigan State, 62-58, at United Center.
"You hate to lose, but it was a good tournament for us," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after his team's first loss in over a month. "It's going to prepare us for what lies ahead next week. We got better this weekend."
The loss ended an eight-game winning streak for Maryland, as well as a streak of 11 victories in games decided by six points or fewer this season. But it also gave the Terps an extra day of rest going into the program's first NCAA tournament in five years and first in four seasons under Turgeon.
"It [stinks] that we can't play tomorrow, but it does give us an extra day just to regroup and get focused and get ready for the next tournament," freshman point guard Melo Trimble said.
Instead of playing top-seeded Wisconsin in Sunday's final, Maryland (27-6) will return to College Park to await the unveiling of this year's tournament field of 68. The Terps are projected to be a No. 3 seed when the brackets are announced Sunday.
It appeared as if the Terps would stay to face the top-seeded Badgers, who earlier beat sixth-seeded Purdue, 71-51, but Maryland and Trimble couldn't sustain their hot shooting or hold an early 16-point lead.
"We definitely relaxed and got too comfortable with that lead," junior forward Jake Layman said. "We're going to learn from that, to know when you have that big lead, you have to put the foot to the gas and stomp on their throat. We didn't do that tonight."
Trimble, who wound up with a game-high 22 points after scoring 13 points of his team's first 17 points, took the blame for the way the offense sputtered toward the end of the first half and for much of the second half.
"Pretty much forcing a lot of shots that I shouldn't have been forcing," said Trimble, who after hitting his first five shots made just two of his last 11. "I think this game was good for us to learn how to be down in the end."
Turgeon, who had done a masterful job maneuvering his team through its long string of narrow victories, tried to deflect criticism from Trimble, who also had four turnovers.
"I've got to do a better job coaching when the game is on the line, when they're making their run, getting us to the foul line or getting shots or getting [senior guard] Dez [Wells] involved," Turgeon said.
"Give them credit, but I've got to do a better job during that stretch. That's what I learned. Our half-court offense has been pretty good. It's getting better. So hopefully, I'll learn that and I'll help get us better shots next week."
Trailing by just a point, 51-50, after a short jumper in the lane by Wells with 3:23 remaining, the Terps watched the Spartans extend their lead twice to seven and later to eight. Sophomore center Damonte Dodd also fouled out with 2:23 left, when Maryland trailed by just two.
Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine did a good job on Wells, who after some early foul troubles finished with just 10 points. The Spartans also shut down Layman, who was held to six points after going for a career-high 23 in a 16-point Maryland victory Jan. 17.
Many of the Michigan State players credited their coach, Tom Izzo, for challenging them at halftime.
"I told them that you're going to get challenged in your life," Izzo said. "They got challenged tonight and they got challenged by a hell of a team.
"Making mistakes isn't a sin, and playing bad isn't a sin, but answering a challenge is probably the greatest thing you can learn as a young person, to realize it ain't easy. That's why there's only two [teams] left."
It will be interesting to see how Maryland responds to its first loss since a woeful first half led to a 16-point loss at Iowa on Feb. 8. The Terps are expected to receive a No. 3 seed and play Thursday in Pittsburgh.
It is a position much different from what many predicted for a team that went 17-15 in its last season in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was picked to finish 10th in the 14-team league.
"We've been through a lot," Layman said. "We've been through a lot of wins. We've been through a stretch of losses [in January]. There's definitely been a lot of learning going on this year, especially for the young guys. For the young guys to go through different situations, it shows how much this team has grown up."
Senior forward Evan Smotrycz, who along with fellow senior forward Jon Graham (Calvert Hall) was the only Terp to have played in the Big Ten before transferring to Maryland, said the Terps already have answered their critics.
"Nobody really believed in us at the start of the season," said Smotrycz, who scored nine points and had four rebounds in 20 minutes. "To do what we did is pretty good."