INDIANAPOLIS — NCAA Tournament losses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are stunners and some are very much expected. Some play out in excruciating fashion, with defeat swiped from the jaws of victory. Some are blowouts, with stress replaced by embarrassment. But sometimes teams just run into a buzz saw and can’t do anything about it.
Maryland men’s basketball saw a valiant effort quickly turn into a funeral on Monday, March 22, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, as its season came to an end in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 with a 96-77 loss to No. 2-seed Alabama. The No. 10-seed Terps took an early lead, but fell behind in the middle of the first half and could never come back. An eight-point halftime deficit suddenly ballooned to 23 early in the second period, and the game cruised to the finish from there.
“We started well … and the game got away from us,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said.
This was far from a horror scene; Maryland did plenty of things well. The Terps shot 53.3 percent from the field as a team. Junior guard Aaron Wiggins poured in a career-high 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Maryland’s 77 points were its second-most against a power-conference team all season; it dropped 79 on Nebraska Feb. 17.
But it didn’t matter. Alabama put on a championship-level performance. The Crimson Tide scored 96 points on 63 possessions. Jaden Shackelford tallied 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting (5-of-8 on 3-pointers). John Petty Jr. poured in 20 points of his own. Jahvon Quinerly, a former five-star prospect now in a sixth-man role, provided 14 points and 11 assists off the bench. Star forward Herbert Jones logged just 17 minutes due to foul trouble and it made no difference. Five Alabama players scored in double figures and nine found the scoreboard in total.
There was just about nothing Maryland could do. The Terps, an imperfect team all season, lost as so many their imperfections were exposed by Alabama’s brilliance.
The Terps lost because they couldn’t keep up with a firecracker of an offense. An offense that shot 8-of-17 from 3-point range in the first half, then started the second half 5-of-8 from distance. An offense that, when combining a breakneck pace with deadeye accuracy, went on a 14-0 run in a little more two minutes of game time to blow everything open. Alabama shot 35-of-66 (53 percent) from the field and 16-of-33 (48.5 percent) from 3-point range, making all 10 of its free-throw attempts for good measure.
The Terps lost because they couldn’t play big enough. Alabama, playing a similar small-ball system, outrebounded Maryland 40-19, including 15-4 on the offensive boards. This was a problem in the Terps’ first NCAA Tournament game against No. 7-seed Connecticut, as the Huskies pulled down 22 of their own misses, but they only turned those into 11 points, while the Crimson Tide led the category 23-6 on this night. Maryland’s 19 rebounds were not only its fewest all season but its fewest since grabbing just 16 on Feb. 8, 2015 against Iowa.
The Terps lost because they simply weren’t deep enough. When Turgeon, who played all five starters for at least 33 minutes in Maryland’s opening-round win against UConn, first went to his bench at the 13:00 mark, bringing in three new players with the likely plan being to remove them at the under-12 media timeout. But that stoppage never came, and Maryland essentially played shorthanded for more than four minutes, and Alabama turned an 18-12 deficit into a 27-22 lead before Turgeon finally called a timeout. The Crimson Tide never trailed again.
The Terps lost for a lot of reasons. They struggled to get to the foul line, attempting just seven foul shots and making three of them; Maryland finished the season 0-6 when taking fewer than 10 foul shots (compared to 7-2 when attempting over 20). Junior guard Eric Ayala, who poured in 23 points against UConn, managed 13 on just 5-of-14 shooting. Sophomore Donta Scott’s 12 points and senior guard Darryl Morsell’s 10 points mostly came with the game well out of reach.
Maryland looked like it would threaten to pull off the upset for a few minutes. After starting 1-of-6 from the field, the Terps made seven straight shots en route to that 18-12 advantage. Alabama responded with five straight makes and opened up its first two-possession lead at 27-22. The margin stretched as high as 11 in the first half before Maryland cut it to eight at intermission.
The avalanche started with 17:03 left in the second half, as Keon Ellis threw down a dunk on a breakaway to make it 53-42. Then Petty pulled up and drained triples on consecutive possessions, and suddenly it was a 17-point game at the 16:11 mark. Shackelford did the same, his second 3-pointer coming with 15:06 remaining, the margin suddenly 23 and the Terps buried.
“It’s definitely something we haven’t seen before,” Morsell said of Alabama’s offense. “It’s the first team all year to score 90 on us. They came in locked in, had a great game plan. They have great spacing on their drives. They look to attack mismatches. They found a rhythm. We got out early and then they found their rhythm, started hitting shots and never stopped missing shots. So just a credit to them, credit to their culture and how they play. They’re really good.”
The final 15 minutes were a slow blur. Wiggins stayed hot, reaching 27 with 6:21 left. Shots kept falling, as Maryland made 10 of its last 12. But none of it mattered; the damage was done. Turgeon emptied his bench with 1:08 to play, the starters exiting to faint applause from the scattered Terps fans in an Alabama-friendly crowd.
This was a season in which Maryland alternated looking like it belonged on the biggest stage and looking overwhelmed. It was a team with plenty of four-star recruits but no stars, except when Wiggins or Ayala or Scott sporadically played like one. It was a bad shooting team, except sometimes it wasn’t. It became an elite defensive team, except elite offenses could overpower it, as Alabama did.
Against UConn, the Terps showed perhaps the best version of themselves. They shot better than 50 percent from the field and played staunch, unrelenting defense no matter how many tries the Huskies gave themselves. It was a microcosm of a season in which the smallest team in the Big Ten scrapped its way to victory.
“It’s the grittiest group of guys I ever played basketball with,” Morsell said. “We were resilient. There’s so many adjectives to describe this team. We are the smallest team in the best conference in the world, playing the best big men in the country that you could throw at us. And we just kept fighting. I think we go down in my record books as the grittiest team ever to put on that Maryland jersey.”
This game, though, showed how far Maryland truly was from the national contender it aspires to be. The Terps were in such a position just one year ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down, but losing two stars and rebuilding a rotation in a pandemic was too much to overcome. These things can change fast — just look at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide went 16-15 in Nate Oats’ first season and are now 26-6 and heading to the Sweet 16. But Turgeon, who’s made just one NCAA Tournament second weekend at Maryland and just finished Year 10, has plenty of work to do.
That work will start in short order. The Terps will surely gain and lose players via the ever-populous NCAA transfer portal in the coming weeks. Morsell has to decide whether to use the extra year of eligibility granted to him amid the pandemic. Wiggins, and perhaps others, will decide whether to test the professional waters. Next year’s team will have familiar faces but could look a whole lot different.
As Maryland left the floor March 22, though, the wounds were still fresh from a turbulent but triumphant season. The team that was picked 11th in the Big Ten, and was 4-9 in the conference in early February, had to fight its way into the postseason. It had to fight its way to the Round of 32. It kept fighting, even when it would have been easy to fold. And that’s what made the successes so gratifying to those in the locker room.
“I think they’re going to be remembered as a team that sacrificed, was undersized, guys played out of position, and they went to the final 32. Right? I mean, come on. We weren’t a Final Four team — come on, let’s be real,” Turgeon said. “And I think we maximized this team extremely well. And that’s what I told them. I said, ‘You guys need to walk out of this building with your head up and proud of what you accomplished, because a lot of teams would kill to be where we were.’
“… You can’t control everything. We’re not in control; God’s in control. But I’m really proud of this group. I’m proud of every group, but this one will have a special place in my heart as I grow older.”
Photo Credit: 2021 NCAA Photos