JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — At nearly the same moment that Maryland freshman guard Eric Ayala’s 70-foot desperation heave sailed over the basket and bounced off the top of the backboard Saturday afternoon at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, Jalen Smith dropped his head in stunned disbelief.
Tears began to drip from the freshman forward’s goggle-protected eyes.
Smith blamed himself for the sixth-seeded Terps losing to third-seeded LSU, 69-67, on a last-second layup by sophomore guard Tremont Waters in the NCAA tournament Round of 32. The defeat denied Maryland a trip home to the Sweet 16 in Washington.
Asked about the emotions he showed as the game ended, Smith said, “I kind of feel like it was my fault. … I should have been able to get [a block] back there. I feel like I failed the seniors. I didn’t want to send them out that way, with a loss.”
As much as Smith had done to help Maryland’s comeback from a 15-point second-half deficit and by nearly sending the game to overtime with a clutch corner 3-pointer with 28 seconds to go, he was only thinking about what he thought he failed to do.
“Coaches during the timeout, they told us that he was probably going to come off a screen,” said Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), his eyes still bloodshot, as he sniffled through his tears. “I tried to step up and stop him, but somehow he got it in the basket and won the game.”
It was no consolation to Smith that video replays showed Waters taking three steps after what also could’ve been a palming violation between his final dribble about 8 feet from the basket and when he released his shot.
Not only was Smith thinking about the 5-foot-11 guard slithering through Maryland’s zone defense — past the 6-10 Smith and banking his shot over 6-10 sophomore center Bruno Fernando — but he was agonizing over missing a couple of late free throws as well.
Smith, who finished with a team-high 15 points, eight rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots, pointed to his own free-throw shooting as a reason why Maryland (23-11) saw its season end. Smith missed four of the 10 he attempted, and the Terps were 16-for-23 as a team.
“I can’t fault anything we tried to do,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “Offensively, we tried to go through Bruno, tried to go through Anthony [Cowan Jr.], tried to go through Stix [Smith]. One thing I would like to change is our free-throw shooting. … If we would have shot 21 of 23, we would have won the game.”
Conversely, LSU (28-6) made 14 of 16.
“Free throws are a big part of the game,” Smith said. “I missed probably like four or five, and we lost by two. If I had made them, we probably would’ve [won]. Free throws are the most important thing. Little things count here.”
Even with the kind of slow start that plagued the Terps throughout the season — as well as many of Turgeon’s teams in his eight years — it came down to the last few possessions.
Just as happened in Maryland’s 79-77 win over 11th-seeded Belmont on Thursday, it came down to one last defensive stop. While the Terps forced the Bruins into a turnover on a backdoor play they were expecting, they were unable to stop the Tigers on a play that was in the pregame scouting report.
Turgeon said he had told his players the Tigers were going use a middle ball screen to free up Waters.
“We showed them exactly what was going to happen,” Turgeon said. “Kid just made a heck of a play. We all knew what was coming. It was whether we were going to be able to stop it or not.”
The shot by Waters, and the subsequent desperation miss by Ayala, set off a wild celebration for the Tigers. An afternoon that began with hope for the Terps to return home to the Capital One Arena ended in heartache and tears, especially for Smith.
Smith’s teammates, as well as Turgeon, came quickly to his defense.
“The effort he gave on the defensive end, banging with those big guys, that was the game right there. Him and Bruno battled all night,” said Ayala, who missed an open 3-pointer with 57 seconds remaining and the game tied at 64.
It was not just what he showed Saturday, but also in Maryland’s win in the Round of 64 that broke a five-game postseason losing streak. Smith had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Belmont.
“That’s prime-time Stix for you right there. Y’all got the best view of him the past two games and y’all see what he’s capable of,” Ayala said.
Fernando added 10 points and 15 rebounds. Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) also scored 10 and fueled Maryland’s comeback. Cowan and freshman wing Aaron Wiggins each added 11 points.
Junior guard Skylar Mays led LSU with 16 points.
After Wiggins had helped the Terps cut what had been a 15-point deficit to nine at halftime with back-to-back 3-pointers, Maryland watched LSU stretch its lead back to 13 points early in the second half.
Turgeon called timeout and put his two backup big men, freshman Ricky Lindo Jr. and redshirt sophomore Joshua Tomaic, in for Smith and Fernando. Tomaic was immediately called for setting an illegal ball screen.
During the ensuing media timeout, Turgeon was called for a technical foul. Mays hit both free throws to push Maryland’s deficit to 15, making it seem as if the Terps were going to be blown out.
Instead, Maryland scored eight straight points in what would become a 29-11 run, where the Terps took their first lead of the game on two free throws by Smith with 5:52 remaining.
“He came back to the huddle saying that he didn't really mean to get a technical foul,” Ayala said of Turgeon. “It was time for us to fight for him.”
Decision to go zone
Right after getting called for the technical, Turgeon put his team in a 3-2 zone defense, something that helped the Terps erase an eight-point lead early in the second half of a Jan. 8 road win at Minnesota.
Just as he did in Minneapolis, Turgeon kept the Terps in the zone the remainder of the game.
“The zone definitely helped out,” Wiggins said. “We were able to get more transition buckets and get more stops defensively. We forced them to take really tough shots. … A lot of adjustments the second half that helped us fight back.”
Asked afterward whether the technical or zone played a bigger role in his team’s comeback, Turgeon said, “I think both, because we scored and hit a 3, and then we got a steal and a layup. But I think our zone slowed them down, kept the little guy (Waters) out of the paint a lot until the end, and then I thought Bruno and Stix did a tremendous job protecting the rim.”