COLUMBUS, OHIO — A Maryland men's basketball season that began with hope and promise ended Sunday night with hurt and pain. A game that began with freshman Melo Trimble's taking on West Virginia nearly singlehandedly ended with the sensational point guard's being knocked out — twice.
Trimble's importance to Maryland's turnaround season couldn't have been more evident in a 69-59 loss to the fifth-seeded Mountaineers at Nationwide Arena. When Trimble went down — first after a hard, moving screen, and later after being kicked in the back of the head accidentally by teammate Damonte Dodd – the fourth-seeded Terps finally succumbed to West Virginia's relentless pressure.
On a night when senior guard Dez Wells had nearly as many turnovers (eight) as points (nine), Maryland couldn't make do without Trimble, who led the Terps with 15 points and seven rebounds before suffering what was called a "head injury" and leaving the game for good with over eight minutes remaining.
A season-high 23 turnovers kept Maryland (28-7), which was playing in its first NCAA tournament in five years, from reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. West Virginia (25-9), led by sophomore center Devin Williams, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds, moves on to play top-seeded and undefeated Kentucky in Cleveland on Thursday in the Midwest region semifinals.
"I think you've got to give West Virginia credit. They were terrific," coach Mark Turgeon said of the Mountaineers, whose large contingent of fans made it sound as if the game was being played in Morgantown. "The press was good. I thought the first 18 minutes, we played well. We didn't play well enough to win."
The Terps hung around even after Trimble went out the first time, leaving with about 15 minutes to go following a hard screen by 6-foot-9, 235-pound Mountaineers forward Nathan Adrian. When he left for good with 8:25 left and the Terps trailing 53-46, the loss of one of the nation's top point guards was too much to overcome.
"Obviously, Melo is pretty important to us," Turgeon said. "And lucky for us, he's been healthy all year. That's pretty amazing. We have one point guard in our program, and a really good one in Melo. And it's the first time all year that he couldn't play. He took a beating tonight.
"So would the outcome been different? We don't know. But we obviously weren't the same without him out there. We were just trying to figure it out. And [his absence] put out a lot more on Dez. And it was tough for us."
It was tough for Wells, too. In his final college game, the first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection seemed largely out of sync, particularly in the first half, when he didn't score until he hit a 3-pointer with a little more than two minutes left.
Wells acknowledged after the game that he had been feeling sick since Friday night with an upper-respiratory condition, yet refused to use it as excuse for one of his worst performances of the season. "It was on me," said Wells.
It was difficult for the Terps to see Trimble at the end of the bench, helplessly watching a team he had led all season. When Wells and senior forward Evan Smotrycz missed the season's first month with injuries, it was Trimble who carried the Terps to their first national ranking in five years.
"It was tough a blow for us, but we kept fighting," Wells said. "I can't wish for anything more from my guys. They stuck with it, just like Coach Turgeon stuck with me. It just wasn't our night. They were the better team tonight."
After falling behind 55-46 with 7:15 left after a turnover by former walk-on Varun Ram (River Hill), who had come in for Trimble, the Terps cut their deficit to 56-51 on a 3-pointer by Smotrycz. West Virginia guard Jevon Carter (six steals) answered with his own 3-pointer, but Maryland kept clawing.
Finally, after a dunk by junior forward Jake Layman (10 points) made it 61-55 with 2:35 left — he was fouled but could not convert the potential 3-point play – the Terps couldn't get any closer. The pro-Mountaineers crowd began to celebrate the team's first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2010.
"It's tough with a guy going down like that, but we've dealt with injuries all year and guys going down and come up with wins. I really didn't expect anything different in this game," Layman said. Trimble is "obviously a very important piece to this team's success, but we have confidence in all our guys."
West Virginia guard Daxter Miles Jr. (Dunbar) said he thought the Mountaineers would have won even if Trimble had not been hurt.
"We had the lead, but it would not have mattered. The pressure would have gotten to them," said Miles, who finished with 12 points. "I'm sorry he got hurt. I hope he's OK."
West Virginia guard Gary Browne, who had 14 points and five steals, said the difference for Maryland without Trimble was clear. "Whoever was handling the ball was very uncomfortable," he said. "You could tell they were not used to handling the ball."
The Terps had overcome injuries and deficits earlier in the year, but Sunday night's do-or-die stakes put a pressure on Maryland it had not faced. And yet maybe the greatest pressure came from the Mountaineers themselves, who pressed the Terps from baseline to baseline.
"Tonight, it was just too many turnovers," said Layman, who had five. "When you play like that, you really have no chance against a team that presses for 40 minutes."
The defeat ended Maryland's most successful season under Turgeon, one in which the Terps set a school record for victories, finished second in their first year in the Big Ten and spent the past three months ranked in the top 25 nationally, reaching No. 8 before the Big Ten tournament.
Though the Terps lose four seniors — Wells, Smotrycz, Richaud Pack and Jon Graham (Calvert Hall) — they could enter next season as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten with the addition of Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter Jr., a 6-9 power forward, and junior-college point guard Jaylen Brantley.
Turgeon also vowed that he is not done on the recruiting trail.
"We set a standard where Maryland basketball should be at," Turgeon said. "We had great leadership in Dez Wells; he was unbelievable this year. The way we should win has been set. And we have great young players coming back and a really good one sitting out in Robert Carter. We're going to do some things in recruiting, too. We've got a lot of momentum. Maryland's a special place, and this is just the beginning."