Maryland put together two frantic late rallies, but in the end the Terps' attempted comebacks proved just too little and just too late.
The Terrapins nearly erased second-half deficits of 13 and 10, but ultimately fell just short to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament semi-finals, 79-76. And now they're forced to return home to College Park and await their fate, after coming so close to continuing a miracle run through to the conference finals.
Dez Wells, who had been so instrumental in getting the Terps to the semis in the first place, had a quiet game, nearly invisible in the first half before finally helping Maryland get back in the game. Nick Faust and Alex Len stepped up their games in his place, with Len finishing with a game-high 20 points and Faust knocking down five crucial three-pointers, but the Terps seemed tired, missing easy layups and leaving opportunities at the line. One or two plays would've swung things in Maryland's direction in a game this close, but perhaps three games in quick succession proved too much for them against a fresher, better-executing Tar Heels team.
Still, that effort was nothing if not admirable. Most had left them for dead when they trailed by 13 with only eleven minutes left to play; those that didn't probably thought things were over after Carolina had stretched the lead to 10 with just over seven minutes remaining. But each time the Heels looked like pulling away for good, Maryland found a crucial play to spark a run - and they even cut the lead down to one, with just over three minutes to go.
An entire game played at that level of intensity and energy would've undoubtedly been a win, but the Tar Heels had enough of a cushion built up to absorb those blows and, eventually, respond in kind. Marcus Paige hit two back-breaking shots both times Maryland got within one possession to maintain UNC's lead. Logan Aronhalt did have a chance to tie at the buzzer with a long three-pointer, but the in-bound play was poorly worked, with Aronhalt far too off from the basket, and that type of execution-related quirk is the risk you run when you only have one shot to win it.
It's easy to be both proud and frustrated after this one - not necessarily frustrated at the team, given that they were playing their third game in three days and, on the basis of their regular season meetings with the Heels, maybe shouldn't have been in this one to begin with. But they were close to pulling it off, and that they didn't is at the very least a touch bittersweet.
No matter. I've been banging the "house money" drum all week - the Terps were left for dead for tourney contention last Sunday, and most by that point had moved on and accepted it. This was all about enjoying some basketball and appreciating what there was to appreciate - and goodness if they didn't give us plenty to appreciate.
This run has been an important one for the program, even if the tournament doesn't come of it. It's given a young team a taste of seriously competing, and if there's anything to mark a turning point, it's probably that. It's clear that they're not the same team that played most of the year by now, and hopefully that'll continue through next season, but this will serve as a learning experience, too. What it's like to be in a must-win game and the type of mental commitment it requires. What it's like to play back-to-back-to-back games, and knowing how to dig deep - perhaps, next time, a little earlier than they did here. And what it's like to taste both such a victorious high and then the disappointment felt right afterwards. Maryland's bringing back a lot next year, and everyone involved is going to be well served for having taken part in this mini-run.
For what it's worth, I'm assuming the tournament probably won't come out of this. The Terps probably needed this win, and even then they weren't guaranteed a spot. But hey, they're in the conversation - maybe a committee member will take a liking and go to bat for them, and sneak them in the last four in. Crazier things have happened. But if the team plays like this for the rest of the year, even the NIT will be an entertaining affair.
All in all, tough to be upset with that outing, loss aside. We'll have more later.