In each of Maryland’s recent losses, the Terps seemed to have things under control — until they didn’t.
At Ohio State on Jan. 11, Maryland built an early seven-point lead, prompting first-year Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann to call timeout with a little over 10 minutes left in the first half. The Terps were then outscored 22-2 in less than seven minutes and never challenged again in a 91-69 loss.
At Michigan four days later, Maryland stormed to a 14-point lead late in the first half and was able to withstand the No. 23 Wolverines eventually tying the game early in the second half. But after overcoming their own 10-point deficit, the Terps lost, 68-67, when their defense collapsed in the final seconds after sophomore guard Kevin Huerter’s go-ahead 3-pointer.
At Indiana last Monday, Maryland held a five-point lead with a little under five minutes left. The lead was frittered away in 40 seconds, as forward Juwan Morgan took over the game. His putback off two missed free throws by Josh Newkirk with 36.6 seconds left put the Hoosiers up three in what became a 71-68 loss for the Terps.
And at Xfinity Center on Sunday, Maryland made the first sellout crowd of the season giddy when it took a 13-point lead over Michigan State at halftime. An earlier chant of “Overrated...overrated” proved a bit premature as an 18-4 run to start the second half gave the now-No. 5 Spartans momentum in an eventual 74-68 loss for the Terps.
“It’s frustrating, because it seems like we just keep not making the right plays down the stretch,” Huerter said. “All the big plays or the plays we needed to make, we’re just not making the little plays. That’s why we keep losing close games at the end. That’s why it’s getting frustrating because we’re making the same mistakes.”
Asked what the difference was between the way the two teams played in each half, Huerter said: “Unfortunately I don't think I have that answer. We didn’t take their punches. I don’t think we responded as well as we could have. We got up 13 … at halftime. We knew the game wasn’t over.
“We were excited, maybe we got ahead of ourselves a little bit. I knew they weren’t going to give up. It’s not the type of team they are, it’s not the type of atmosphere you can see they have on the sidelines, the way they play, the way they’re together. They were just better in the second half.”
After winning a majority of their close games in the Big Ten the past three years, the Terps are 1-3 in games decided by six points or fewer. Senior wing Jared Nickens said the difference this season to the past three years when the Terps won 17 of 23 games decided by six points or fewer — including all seven in 2014-15 — comes down to several factors.
“Between the ears, we’ve just got to do better on the defensive end, and finish out game plans,” Nickens said Sunday.
Sometimes it’s been a matter of several minutes, long stretches when turnovers or forced shots or an inability to secure a rebound takes away Maryland’s lead and confidence. Sometimes, as was the case in Ann Arbor, it’s just a few scant seconds that can turn apparent victory into agonizing defeat.
Asked what coach Mark Turgeon’s postgame message was to his team, Huerter said: “We can be better. We can’t be content with losing close games, we can’t be happy that we kept it close on our home court. We have to want it a little bit more, want to win these games because we’re right there.”
The stretch of four losses in the past five games, and five in the last seven, has put Maryland (15-8, 4-6) in a tough position when it comes to trying to keep its streak alive of making a fourth straight NCAA tournament. With the Terps now having to play No. 3 Purdue on Wednesday at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., the goal seems almost insurmountable.
“You got to take it day by day,” Nickens said. “You can’t look too far ahead, you can’t look back. We’ve just got to learn from our mistakes and move forward.”
For his part, Turgeon is trying to get his team to focus on the upcoming game rather than figuring out what it might take to make the NCAA tournament.
“I’m not caught up in we have to win this game to be in that tournament, that doesn’t matter to me,” a clearly frustrated Turgeon said Sunday. “What matters to me is that we play our best basketball and the rest will take care of itself. I don’t pay attention. I’ve had teams in situations like this that got it done. If I can just get us where I want to get us, we’ll have a chance.”
Except for their first season in the Big Ten in 2014-15, when the Terps won eight straight games to close the regular season and finish second in the league with a 14-4 record, Maryland has not fared well in the second half of the conference schedule. The Terps went 4-5 last season and 5-4 the year before to finish 12-6 both times.
While their late-season fades cost Maryland a couple of notches in the seeding for the NCAA tournament, it didn’t affect whether the Terps made the field. With only one top-50 win on its resume — over Butler in December — and only one top 50 opponent on the schedule after Wednesday — Michigan on senior day — Turgeon’s team is about out of chances.
Huerter knows that a big chance to turn the season back around was lost Sunday.