GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The ball was in the hands of Maryland's best 3-point shooter. So when Logan Aronhalt released his deep shot that could have tied the game with 10 seconds left, his teammates assumed it was going in, and his coach was already contemplating how to defend North Carolina on the other end.
But Aronhalt had gotten a little too deep, and he never completely squared his shoulders to the basket. His shot fell short, and so did Maryland's attempt at returning to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final for the first time in nine years and extending its improbable run for an NCAA tournament berth.
Seventh-seeded Maryland's 79-76 loss to the third-seeded Tar Heels in the semifinals makes it unlikely that the Terps will receive an NCAA tournament at-large berth tonight. Although they defeated No. 2 Duke twice, the Terps (22-12) were hurt by a relatively weak nonconference schedule and by losing three of their last four regular-season games.
But the team rallied in the ACC tournament, beating Wake Forest, upsetting Duke and rallying from 13 points behind late in the second half to threaten the Tar Heels (24-9) at the end.
If not in the NCAA tournament, Maryland appears likely to play in the National Invitation Tournament. The Terps could begin play in the NIT at Comcast Center as soon as Tuesday.
Saturday's outcome left the Terps with mixed feelings. They are too competitive to be pleased with their effort, and the loss was still fresh. When the final buzzer sounded, center Alex Len — who played his best game in a month with 20 points — knelt near center court to absorb the defeat.
But after the suddenness of the loss passes, coach Mark Turgeon said he will appreciate what his team accomplished here at Greensboro Coliseum.
"Unfortunately, in today's world, you get judged on whether you make that [NCAA] tournament or not, but I'm judging us on where our program was when I took the job and where it is today," the second-year coach said. "A month ago, I'm not sure I wanted this season to keep going — these guys were tough to coach. Now I'm having a blast coaching them. I'm having so much fun, because they're listening."
North Carolina, which will face Miami in Sunday's ACC final, beat Maryland three times this season.
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams is a former boss and mentor of Turgeon's.
"He's one of the toughest individuals I've ever been around," Williams said of the Maryland coach. "I honestly thought he did a better job [in the] second half with his club than I did with mine."
The Tar Heels led by as many 13 points in the second half before Maryland made a couple of runs.
Led by Len, the Terps cut the deficit to three points at 60-57 and again at 71-68 with 3 minutes, 38 seconds left. The margin was just 71-70 after a layup by Len with 3:20 left.
North Carolina's Marcus Paige answered with a jumper and a floater to extend the lead to 77-72.
Maryland's last chance came as it trailed 79-76. The Terps called timeout with the ball and 11 seconds left. They had a chance to tie because P.J. Hairston — playing with a bandage on his injured, non-shooting hand — missed one of two free throws
"Let's go!" Turgeon screamed to his players as they huddled during the timeout.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he told his team to foul Maryland intentionally to prevent a 3-point shot if the clock wound down as much as five seconds.
But Aronhalt — on a designed play — shot before that could happen.
"I was just too deep. I was two-and-a-half steps away from the 3-point line," said Aronhalt, a senior transfer from Albany who answered every question afterward in a soft, even voice. "It was a tough angle for me to turn and get squared up."
Said Maryland sophomore Dez Wells: "We know he's a good shooter, a great shooter actually. It happened to be that one time out of 10 that he didn't make it."
Maryland frequently battled frustration Saturday. Time and time again, the Terps got to the basket only to see their shots roll off the rim.
"It wasn't our day," said Wells, who shot 6-for-15 and scored 15 points after having a career-best 30 points in Maryland's upset of Duke the night before. He had 21 points against Wake Forest on Thursday.
With the Terps down by 11 in the first half, Wells drove to the basket but his lay-up attempt rolled off the rim. He raised both arms as if to say, "What gives?" Guarded often by North Carolina junior Reggie Bullock, Wells was scoreless until 5:52 remained in the first half.
"I grabbed [Wells after the game] and told him he had a phenomenal performance for three days here," Williams said.
Although they lost Saturday, the Terps accomplished in the ACC tournament what they managed only once during the 18-game conference season — consecutive victories.
"We won today as a program," Turgeon said. "Our program got better."