The Maryland men’s basketball team was one basket away from advancing to the Sweet 16 in the 2019 NCAA Tournament last March, but the Terps lost to LSU in the second round on a game-winning layup by Tremont Waters with 1.6 seconds left.
The 69-67 loss to LSU has stuck in the mind of fans the entire offseason — understandably so.
“It was a heartbreaking loss,” sophomore Jalen Smith said at Maryland’s media day Oct. 15. “Nobody wanted to go out on a loss, especially our seniors because we were trying to win that game for them.”
The Terps exceeded expectations during the regular season despite a young roster and even won a game in the NCAA Tournament, a 79-77 victory against Belmont in the first round.
To say the team didn’t take the LSU loss hard is an understatement, but there were plenty of positives to take from the road it took to get to that point.
“You can learn so much from that loss,” sophomore Aaron Wiggins said. “The ball can literally bounce either way at any time. Seeing it everywhere after the loss, seeing the video, it was a really big deal. It motivated us to be better.”
It’s hard to not let something of that magnitude continue to dwell, but the next day, all eyes were on the 2019-20 season.
“Right after that game ended, the 2018-19 season was over, it was a new season,” Wiggins said. “With new guys in, we’re focused on us and we’re practicing every day to get better.”
Above anything, the offseason has served as opportunity for the Terps to get better, and their development has been well documented. The Terps are known for having a productive training program led by strength and conditioning coach Kyle Tarp.
“Our whole model this entire offseason has been ‘Next Step.’ Our first workout after that, we had shirts that said ‘Next Step,'” junior Darryl Morsell said. “We’ve been doing everything we have to do to take that next step, and not just next step as far as the NCAA Tournament. … We’re just focused on taking that next step in all facets of our lives, and hopefully, it can translate to the court.”
That mantra was especially evident during the offseason. Sophomore Ricky Lindo Jr. added 20 pounds of muscle this offseason; Smith, 10, and senior Anthony Cowan Jr., 10. Ayala, now a sophomore, dropped 10 pounds to be more versatile and athletic on the court.
Individual players set goals during the season about what they need to work on during the offseason, but the sour taste that the loss left played a role in motivating those summer workouts.
“In the offseason, that’s something you could literally bring up to somebody as they’re working out,” Wiggins said. “… It could be used in multiple different ways. Most guys don’t like hearing about it because we were a layup away, but just using it in a positive way to make sure everybody gets better as an individual and the team will get better as a whole.”
Oftentimes, the best thing to do is to flush the loss away and think toward the future, focusing on the next season. When videos of the play are still lingering online, months after the fact, it’s tough to do so. That, coupled with the departure of center Bruno Fernando to the NBA, took a toll on the Terps.
With high expectations already on them ahead of the 2019-20 season, the objective of the offseason was to adapt and move on the best way the team could.
“We got a whole new team. Bruno was a big piece of what we did last year,” Ayala said. “We don’t have him anymore, so we had to switch our focus on what we need to do with this team to prepare us for this season. Short-term memory and leaving the past in the past.”
More than anything, the loss lit a fire under the team to never feel again what they felt in Jacksonville, Fla., against LSU.
“Everybody’s improved from that. It built a mentality for us and it built our culture, knowing that everybody has to work hard now,” Smith said. “Everybody has to make sure that we buckle down because it’s going to be a bumpy ride this season.”
Maryland was a young and relatively inexperienced team last season. Now, with NCAA Tournament experience and a full season under their belts, this team is poised to build off last season’s success and continue to take positive steps forward for the program.
“Everybody wants to build off that and try to do as good as we did last season,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to take it a game at a time because we have a lot of new pieces and we have a lot of new things to learn from.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox