Ann Arbor, Mich. — Going into the 2017-18 men’s basketball season, Maryland and Michigan were thought to be in about the same place — teams that had lost key players from a year ago but still had enough talent to be a factor in the Big Ten and would likely return to the NCAA tournament.
One team now fits that description, while the other is trying to see what new challenge lurks around the corner.
Maryland’s 68-67 defeat Monday night at the Crisler Center added to the struggles of what has been the toughest stretch for the Terps since they joined the Big Ten, the third straight road loss for a team that had done remarkably well away from College Park the previous three years.
It also illustrated the direction Maryland and Michigan appear to be headed.
After suffering blowout losses at then-No. 1 Michigan State (91-61) and now-No. 22 Ohio State (91-69), the Terps thought they had completed a second-half comeback from a 10-point deficit when sophomore guard Kevin Huerter hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left.
That’s when the Wolverines won.
Michigan, which had lost a similar game last week at home to then-No. 4 Purdue after senior center Isaac Haas hit the go-ahead free throw with four seconds left and junior guard Charles Matthews narrowly missed a 40-footer at the buzzer, got a pair of free throws with 1.2 seconds to go from senior forward Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Abdur-Rahkman caught a long, unguarded inbounds pass about 40 feet from the basket and was tripped by freshman center Bruno Fernando as he drove. Huerter’s 90-foot desperation heave at the buzzer was well short, similar to the one he was forced to take after nearly leading the Terps to a road win at Syracuse early in the season.
“We had talked about letting him catch it in front of us and make him take a long shot and take our chances, and we didn’t do that,” Huerter said. “Once I saw him catch [the ball], he got a head of steam, I knew it was bad news. Just a tough way to lose.”
The victory Michigan (16-4, 5-2) helped build the momentum the Wolverines found by easily beating then-No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing. A win Monday would have helped the undermanned Terps in their chase for a fourth straight NCAA tournament.
Already down to eight healthy scholarship players — including one, graduate transfer center Sean Obi, who didn’t get off the bench for the second time in the past three games — Maryland has to regroup for Thursday night’s game at Xfinity Center against another team, Minnesota, that has seen its own promising season unravel with a long-term shoulder injury to sophomore forward Amid Coffey and junior center Reggie Lynch’s indefinite suspension amid rape allegations.
Asked whether fatigue played any role in the defeat, Huerter said: “Not really. Being down seven in the last minute of the game, we all hit shots. I don’t think fatigue was any part of us losing today. I think we’re all in good enough shape, we’re used to guys playing big minutes. When they went on the run [to go from seven down to 10 up], I thought we responded pretty well. We made big plays down the stretch at the end of the game.”
Sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who led Maryland (14-6, 3-4) with 24 points, said Turgeon held a team meeting at the hotel where the Terps were staying Sunday night to talk about being mentally tougher on the road than in recent games at Michigan State and Ohio State.
“It had been unacceptable what had been happening on the road so far,” Cowan said after Monday’s game. “We’ve just got to come back and get ready for practice Wednesday.”
Cowan had helped the Terps build as much as a 14-point lead in the first half by scoring 13 points by halftime, then led them back from the 10-point deficit nearly single-handedly until Huerter finally found his stroke and hit 3-pointers in the last minute, including what Turgeon and his players thought might be the game-winner.
“It’s going to be different guys every night,” said Cowan, who played all 40 minutes. “But I’m good [being the No. 1 scoring option]. Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m going to do it.”
Turgeon was asked whether a loss like the one suffered Monday could help his team for the remainder of the Big Ten season.
“Losing stinks,” he said. “We still think we’re pretty good. We haven’t played that well on the road the last couple of games. We ran into some teams that played well. This was good timing for us to get one, obviously, on the road because they had a big game on Saturday. I’m proud of my group.
“Hopefully we can get healthy, get one more player [Dion Wiley, who sat out his second straight game with a concussion] back. There’s so much on Kevin’s plate, so much on Anthony’s plate right now. It’s hard. Guys like [redshirt freshman Joshua] Tomaic get better. There’s a lot of positives in the game tonight, but losing’s no fun.”