CHICAGO — Three possessions into Thursday’s game against 13th-seeded Nebraska at the United Center in the second round of the 2019 Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was already agitated.
Two missed shots — one in the lane by sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, the other a 3-pointer by Morsell’s former Mount Saint Joseph’s teammate, Jalen Smith — was followed with a turnover by sophomore center Bruno Fernando.
Turgeon had seen enough.
“Wake up! WAKE UP!,” he screamed.
It’s not clear whether the fifth-seeded, No. 21-ranked Terps heard their coach's pleas, but they certainly didn’t heed them. They simply pulled the covers back over their head, and went back to sleep, waking only occasionally in distressing 69-61 defeat.
Not only was it the third loss in the past four games, and seventh in the last 13 for Maryland (22-10) after its 16-3 start, but it was also the third straight year the Terps lost their Big Ten tournament opener.
Unlike the past two seasons, when Maryland lost as the third seed to sixth-seeded Northwestern in Washington, D.C., in 2017 and as the eighth seed to ninth-seeded Wisconsin in New York last year, this marks the first postseason loss under Turgeon to a double-digit seed.
“You know, we weren't very good today,” Turgeon said afterward. “I'll just be real with you. And Nebraska, I thought, was terrific, especially when they needed to be, shot clock going down, made a lot of shots. You know, we just never had it.”
Said Fernando: “We just couldn’t make shots. We couldn’t do much. They wanted it more than we did. That showed by the way we played and the shots we got. They played harder than we did. As a team we’ve got to stick together and improve from here and make sure we don’t have that same feeling and experience as we go up for our next game.”
Unlike last year’s loss to the Badgers at Madison Square Garden, which ended a 19-13 season for Maryland, Turgeon’s team will play again. But Thursday’s loss will likely make for a lower seed — probably a No. 6 instead of a No. 5 — and a tougher road in the NCAA tournament.
And similar to the loss to the Wildcats at the Verizon Center two seasons ago, Thursday’s defeat is certain to ratchet up the crescendo of criticism about the way the Terps have struggled toward the end of the season after a fast start. Two years ago, No. 6 seed Maryland lost to No. 11 seed Xavier in the Round of 64 in Orlando.
Never in control
The Terps, who beat the Cornhuskers in College Park in early January on a late basket by Smith and then blew them out by 15 points in Lincoln in early January behind Smith’s first double double in a Big Ten game, never led after a turnaround shot inside by Smith put them up 10-9 with 12:30 to go in the first half.
In total, the Terps were in the lead for two minutes and 18 seconds.
After tying the score at 14 with 7:51 left in the half on a pair of free throws by freshman guard Eric Ayala, Maryland watched as Terp-killer James Palmer Jr. led Nebraska (18-15) on a 16-3 run. Palmer scored 14 of his game-high 24 points in the half, as the Cornhuskers went to their dressing room leading by 12.
“I think as a team and individually, when you come in for shootarounds and warmups, we got to take that stuff a lot more serious and start focusing on making the shots we’re going to take in the game,” Fernando said.
“We got to give Nebraska credit. They played last night [beating No, 12 seed Rutgers]. They made a lot of shots and good plays down the stretch. We couldn’t get going offensively.”
Playing a team that has been reduced to six scholarship players and a couple of walk-ons — one of them, junior guard Johnny Trueblood, even talked some trash with the Maryland bench after burying a 3-pointer in the first half — the Terps shot a dismal 18-for-50 for the game, including 6-for-20 on 3-pointers.
Junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. led the Terps with 18 points, but missed his first five shots and only had two free throws in the first 30 minutes, scoring most of his points after Nebraska withstood one brief rally by Maryland in the second half when what became a 14-point lead was cut to five.
Fernando gets frustrated
Nebraska coach Tim Miles, whose team will play No. 4 seed Wisconsin in Friday’s quarterfinals, said in the postgame news conference that his team’s goal was to shut down Fernando and Cowan. While Cowan got going too late, Fernando never got going offensively at all.
The 6-foot-10 Angolan, who was selected first-team All-Big Ten earlier in the week, finished with a season-low three points, taking just four shots. He also had eight rebounds and three blocks.
“We just wanted to aggravate him as much as possible, just make him play in a crowd, send different guys at him, whatever it took,” Miles said. “And then you really run some risk. I always worry about Anthony Cowan, too, going off the way he can, but we had to get to Bruno, and we did. You don't beat Maryland without trying to neutralize those two.”
Fernando was clearly upset with the way he and his teammates were playing. At several points, he came to the bench talking to Turgeon and the assistant coaches about how the lane was clogged up too much for him to maneuver, and Nebraska’s double and triple teams played their part.
“I knew they were going to double-team me the whole time, I just think they did a really good job down there tonight,” Fernando said. “We got stagnant a little bit. We could have moved a lot more without the ball. They did a great job on me. Whenever they double-teamed me, they trapped me right away and made sure I turned the ball over or take the ball out of my hands to somebody else.”
Two second-chance baskets prove costly
Nebraska missed on its first four second-chance opportunities, and while the Cornhuskers only scored three after their eight offensive rebounds, two certainly made a difference in Maryland’s inability to mount a serious second-half comeback.
After a drive and dunk by Morsell (14 points, five assists) cut what had been a 14-point deficit to five, 35-30, with a little under 15 minutes left, it seemed as if the Terps were ready to take over after the media stoppage with 14:46 left.
Palmer missed a jumper, but senior forward Tanner Borchardt grabbed one of his five offensive rebounds and scored right before the next 30-second clock was about to expire. It started a 9-0 run for the Cornhuskers from which Maryland never recovered.
“There’s no doubt Maryland was on the attack and we weren't able to slow them down,” Miles said. “You know, any time you get an extra possession like that and you're able to run a little more clock, it's like a running game, right, and I think that was huge.”
A later second-chance opportunity came after Cowan cut the deficit to six with 2:27 remaining. Trueblood grabbed the offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer and Palmer buried a 3 as the 30-second clock was ticking down again.
“We weren’t in it mentally today, I can’t explain it,” Turgeon said.
With Maryland trailing 46-37, Morsell made a steal and appeared to get bumped as he went in for a layup, causing him to miss badly. Turgeon immediately jumped out, took a couple of couple of steps on the court and voiced his displeasure loudly.
Turgeon was immediately given a technical by referee Steve McJunkins, who seemed close to ejecting the Maryland coach and warned a couple of Maryland assistant coaches to pull their boss back to the bench.
The Cornhuskers scored four points — two of the free throws by senior guard Glynn Watson Jr. (19 points) and on the subsequent possession by junior forward Isaiah Roby (15 points, six rebounds, three blocks) to push the lead back to 13.
Asked what led to the technical, Turgeon said: “Yeah, I just got on the floor too much. Shouldn't have done it. I thought Darryl got fouled, but they didn't. That's really what matters. Shouldn't have got the technical.”