The first 39 minutes and 47 seconds of Maryland's NCAA tournament opener against 13th-seeded Valparaiso on Friday night featured the usual characters for the fourth-seeded Terps.
It was also decided in a typical way — in the final seconds.
But while freshman point guard Melo Trimble had his second career double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds) and guards Dez Wells and Jared Nickens also added 14 points each, it was little-used senior guard Varun Ram who ultimately saved the night at the end.
Ram stripped the ball from Valparaiso guard Keith Carter just before the buzzer, preserving a 65-62 victory for Maryland at Nationwide Arena and sending the Terps (28-6) into Sunday's third round against fifth-seeded West Virginia (8:40 p.m. on TNT).
Ram, a former walk-on from River Hill, hadn't even entered the game until the final possession.
The victory was the Terps' 11th in 12 games decided by six points or less this season, and this one came after two starters — junior forward Jake Layman and sophomore center Damonte Dodd — had fouled out down the stretch.
"I can't really give you a definitive answer why that happens," the senior Wells said in the locker room, struggling to explain the Terps' ability to survive in close games. "I don't know. I guess it's the nature of our team. And when it gets down to the grit of the game, we just find ways to win. That's how we've been throughout the year."
One of the reasons is that Wells has continued to make clutch plays. He added to a long list this season with a huge three-point play to give Maryland its final points of the game.
Wells flew from the perimeter to pull down the only shot Layman was credited with taking — a 3-pointer from the wing — and put in the rebound as he was fouled with 1:44 to go. His free throw made it 65-61.
As he has on all but one occasion this season, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon decided not to foul intentionally in the final seconds with his team clinging to a three-point lead, taking his chances with the other team needing to hit a 3-pointer to force overtime. As it did in victories over Indiana, Penn State and Nebraska, the strategy worked for Maryland again.
Asked about the confidence he had in Ram to make such a play — one that, on replays, appeared could have been called a foul — Turgeon said, "We have a lot of confidence in him. Varun brings it every day. He's had to step in in a lot of situations."
Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said he tried to set up the last play to get a 3-point shot for star sophomore forward Alec Peters, but Maryland senior forward Evan Smotrycz prevented the game's leading scorer (18 points) from getting the ball. Instead it went to Carter, who tried to get fouled taking a corner 3-pointer.
No foul was called, and Smotrycz picked up the loose ball as the clock expired.
Drew was classy in defeat.
Told by a reporter who covers Valparaiso that replays showed Carter was fouled, Drew said, "I think the game of basketball, there's a lot of ups and downs, a lot of things that go on. There were probably different things throughout the game that could have gone either way."
Asked if he thought about recreating the famous tip-play that led to "The Shot" — Drew's own 23-footer to upset No. 4-seeded Missisissippi in the opening round of the 1998 NCAA tournament — the 40-year-old coach smiled.
"We had a lot of different looks, but that was not talked about during the timeout," he said.
There were calls that went against the Terps, too, none bigger that what appeared to be a clean block by Dodd on a dunk attempt by Peters with 16:31 left in the game. With only two fouls at the time, Dodd was called for his third personal and quickly his fourth when the referee said he taunted Peters.
At the time, the Terps — who were playing their first game in the tournament in five years — seemed to have grabbed control by doublling their four-point halftime lead to eight.
"It was a clean block," said Dodd, whose opinion was supported by replay. "I was actually trying to help him up because he fell pretty hard. He [the official] said I was staring him down. I've got to be smarter than that and let it be."
The absence of Dodd left the Terps without much protection around the rim, though it was Valparaiso's 3-point shooting that kept the Crusaders (28-6) hanging around and eventually gave them a chance to win the game. Ultimately, the Terps made enough plays to win, as they have done for most of the season.
"I thought it was a terrific win," said Turgeon, who is now 5-1 in NCAA tournament openers as a head coach. "I thought we were great defensively. They made a lot of shots, shots that when they shot them I thought were good shots for us. And they made them. The Peters kid is terrific. ... Another close win for us."