When the buzzer sounded, moments after a halfcourt heave by Belmont star Dylan Windler fell well short of the basket, Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon raised both arms in victory — celebration, but also relief.
Somehow, on a day when Windler did his best imitation of Larry Bird or Gordon Hayward with 35 points, the Terps survived, beating the 11th-seeded Bruins, 79-77, on Thursday at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena.
Led by freshman forward Jalen Smith, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, sixth-seeded Maryland (23-10) won a postseason game for the first time since the 2015-16 season, breaking a string of five straight losses.
The sixth-seeded Terps will move on to Saturday’s game against third-seeded LSU, which earlier Thursday beat 14th-seeded Yale, 79-74, for a chance to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016 and play at Capital One Arena in Washington.
Several Maryland players say that the Terps might have taken Nebraska too lightly going into their Big Ten tournament opener in Chicago, and will take that hard lesson into Thursday's NCAA tournament opener against No. 11 seed Belmont in Jacksonville.
Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, Smith’s former high school teammate at Baltimore’s Mount Saint Joseph, tied his career high with 18 points and sophomore center Bruno Fernando finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Trailing 40-34 at halftime after being down by as many as 12 points twice in the first half, Maryland scored on its first six possessions of the second half and stopped Belmont on five straight during a 14-0 run that pushed the Terps ahead 48-40.
But the Bruins came back behind Windler, eventually taking a 51-50 lead with an 11-3 run of their own. Maryland also had some foul trouble as Morsell and Smith each took a seat with three personals.
Though the Terps went back in front, 56-51, foul trouble and fatigue started catching up with Maryland. Fernando also took a seat — a couple of minutes after slamming a tomahawk dunk attempt off the back of the rim — and Belmont came back again.
A pair of dunks by backup junior center Seth Adelsperger gave the Bruins 57-56 lead, but the Terps went back in front when little-used reserve forward Joshua Tomaic scored off a feed by Cowan right before the under-12 minute timeout.
After the Terps forced a turnover, Cowan was fouled going to the basket on a two-on-one fastbreak. McClain then scored in the lane, was fouled by Fernando and converted the three-point play. After a turnover by Smith, McClain scored again.
A pair of free throws and a stepback 3-pointer by Windler pushed Belmont's lead to 67-60 and it appeared the Terps were done. But two layups by Smith after offensive rebounds and a 3-pointer from the wing by Morsell cut the deficit to one point.
With Belmont up 71-68 and Windler having scored nine straight points, Cowan hit a 3-pointer to tie the game. McClain, who helped Belmont get off to a fast start, was fouled, but missed a pair of free throws after the under-4 timeout.
Another slow start for Cowan
After scoring one point in the first 30 minutes and 17 in the last 10 minutes of Maryland’s loss to No. 13 seed Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. came out cold again Thursday.
Though more aggressive against Belmont than he was in Chicago, Cowan wasn’t that much more successful. He missed his first six shots before hitting a driving layup. He finished the first half with just two points.
Cowan shot 1-for-9 in the first half — and picked up two personal fouls — and missed two 3-pointers on a possession when the Terps missed three straight 3s. Maryland shot 2-for-11 in the first half from 3-point range, while Belmont shot 5-for-14.
Scoring in a variety of ways
Belmont showed why it came in as the nation's second-highest scoring team behind Gonzaga.
It’s not just the way the Bruins shoot, it’s the way they score. In a 15-3 run that helped build a 26-14 lead, Belmont had a three-point play by McClain, three free throws by McClain (on a foul by Cowan) and a 3-pointer by Windler.
Maryland is unbeaten when Smith scores more than 15 points. The freshman forward played up to the hype that followed him from Mount Saint Joseph, carrying the Terps back from a 67-60 deficit despite playing in foul trouble to lead Maryland to the Round of 32 on Saturday.