BY Roman Stubbs
The Washington Post
ORLANDO, Fla. — The death rattle of the Maryland men’s basketball season came with less than 10 minutes remaining in a 76-65 loss to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night, with the Terrapins trudging through another one of their inexplicable second-half scoring droughts. This one wasn’t as long as some of the others, but it was the most painful. It lasted 5 minutes 33 seconds, spoiling a six-point lead and sending the Terrapins into the offseason wondering what their offensive identity ever was.
There were cruel chants from disgruntled fans on Thursday night, most of which were directed at Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. It was a deflating conclusion to a season that began 20-2, the best start in school history. It ended with losses in seven of the final 11 games.
There will be plenty of questions to answer for this team in the weeks to come, including if junior point guard Melo Trimble will hold off on the NBA draft and return for his senior season. He got a glimpse of just how powerful Maryland’s young core could be on Thursday night, with Shenendehowa graduate Kevin Huerter scoring a team-high 19 points and fellow freshman Justin Jackson adding 14. Trimble finished with 13, but fell quiet down the stretch as his team was outscored 41-29 in the final 20 minutes.
Xavier (22-13), which was led by Trevon Bluiett’s 21 points, will advance to face the winner of Florida State and Florida Gulf Coast in the second round on Saturday.
Maryland (24-9) had arrived here a day early both to escape a winter storm and hit the reset button after six losses in its previous 10 games, with some players spending parts of the week golfing and fishing in the Florida sun. But Turgeon had also prepared his team to flip the switch offensively as it prepared for just its second game in 12 days, building more scrimmage time into his practices to help simulate game situations for every man in his rotation.
It had a little effect early on Thursday night. Maryland endured two scoring droughts of more than three minutes in the first half, beginning the game shooting just 3 for 13 from the field, including 1 for 8 from the three-point line. It was reminiscent of the droughts that had plagued this team during its six losses over the final six weeks of the season.
Jackson had given his team an early lead with a vicious two-handed slam — he was also fouled in the act — and before he let go of the rim, he peered back at his bench. Even that couldn’t jolt the Terrapins to life through the first 12 minutes, as Xavier toggled between a zone defense and a man-to-man scheme to swarm Trimble at every turn.
But while Maryland’s offensive problems reared its head in an ugly and familiar fashion through stretches — its problems against the zone, its lack of an interior scorer, the scoring droughts — the Terrapins once again proved to be a resilient bunch. Huerter and Jackson combined for 19 points in the first half to help pull their team within striking distance, and Trimble finished a layup after a steal in the final minute of the first half to give his team a 36-35 lead at the break.
Maryland began the second half much like it did a week ago against Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals — with more offensive pop, enough to take control of a 46-40 lead on consecutive layups from Trimble and freshman Anthony Cowan Jr. Like that loss to the Wildcats at Verizon Center, when the Terrapins blew a 10-point lead – or in any of their four conference losses at home — they struggled to find an offensive identity down the stretch.
Even as Maryland was utterly controlled on the boards 34-24, it found ways to compensate with its smaller lineup in other areas. It used the 7-foot-3 wingspan of Jackson to shadow Bluiett, the guard who entered the night as the Big East’s third-highest scorer (18.1) but had just one field goal in the first half.
Bluiett heated up in the second half, however, which included back-to-back three-pointers to give Xavier a 55-50 lead with 10:43 remaining. That came after Xavier Coach Chris Mack had thrown a 1-3-1 zone at Maryland out of a timeout, forcing an empty possession. After another timeout by Turgeon, Mack switched back to a man-to-man look. That led to another missed layup by Jackson, who looked perplexed as his team began to unravel.
Maryland’s scoring drought of 5:33 was compounded by the streaky shooting of Bluiett and sophomore forward Kaiser Gates, who nailed a corner three-pointer to give his team a 61-50 lead with just more than nine minutes remaining. After Bluiett scored an uncontested layup to push the lead back to 11, Huerter responded with a deep three-pointer with 6:33 left.
Maryland still had a chance after Xavier guard J.P. Macura missed three straight free throws, but Macura responded by picking Cowan for a steal and a layup. Jackson committed a turnover after Mack went back to the zone on the next possession.