When Melo Trimble hit two pivotal free throws to give the Maryland men's basketball team its first lead of the night against Northwestern on Sunday – by a single point, with 20 seconds left – at least one teammate figured the Terrapins were all the way home.
"To me, I thought it was over right there," said junior forward Jake Layman. "I thought there was no way we were going to let them score."
It was a reasonable thought. The Terps had just bolted from 11 points down to a point ahead in the span of 3:26, a comeback so statistically and rationally improbable it could have frozen the visiting Wildcats right then.
"We are going to win," Northwestern coach Chris Collins told his players after Trimble's foul shots. "I said, 'Look, we're going to score and win the game.'"
Of course, Layman was proven wrong. Northwestern's Tre Demps nailed a gorgeous fade-away as he scrambled to his left with eight seconds remaining, restoring the Wildcats to a lead they had been nursing with only brief interruption since the game was 17 seconds old. So the Terrapins trailed once more, as they had for about 38 minutes, but now by a solitary point with fewer than 10 seconds left. Trimble picked up the ball from his own baseline, as thousands of stunned Maryland fans looked on from behind him, to his left and to his right. All had been hushed by Demps' icy jumper.
With the ball, Trimble crossed half-court and launched what his coach, Mark Turgeon, later said was an ill-advised three-pointer. He missed, and the ball caromed high in the air to the basket's left. There were 3.3 seconds on the clock when the ball drew orange. Dez Wells stood in the red paint under basket, jostling with 6-foot-5 guard JerShon Cobb.
"I just went to the basket," Wells said, irritated that he hadn't denied Demps on the basket that brought about Maryland's latest predicament. "I wasn't going to let nobody stop me from getting the ball."
Wells shrugged off Cobb, caught Trimble's rebound and deposited it off the glass and through the hoop.
Wells left 1.4 seconds on the clock, but Northwestern was out of rebuttals. That clock finally struck zeroes, and XFINITY Center exploded in a jubilant, if restrained, way. Unlike in close home wins over the past few years, nobody stormed the court.
Maryland had won, 68-67, in a game it didn't deserve for 36 minutes and change. Trimble, Wells and Layman combined to score the Terps' last 22 points, starting at the 10-minute mark of the second half. They needed every one of them.
"I didn't like [Trimble's] shot," head coach Mark Turgeon said afterward. "But Dez does what Dez does."
That Maryland was even positioned for the game's last 20 seconds to be so meaningful was no small wonder. The Terps trailed by as many as 14 points at different junctures, sometimes mounting miniature runs but never denting more than five or six points into an arm's-length deficit. After 20 minutes, the Terps trailed by 11. And after 36:14 of the game's 40 minutes, they trailed by the same 11.
With 3:28 left, the game went to a media timeout, ostensibly so the sportswriters on press row could put some of the finishing touches on game stories explaining how little Northwestern managed to slay 13th-ranked Maryland.
"We were thinking, 'We're down by 11 with only three minutes left. We have never come back from a deficit like that,'" Trimble said. "But Coach Turgeon was really confident in us and asked us if we wanted to win, and we said, 'Yes.'"
So, the Terrapins got to work, nibble by nibble. Trimble scored on a lay-up and drew a foul with 3:20 left, completing a three-point play at the foul line. Demps nearly countered with a crippling lay-in of his own, but the ball rimmed out and fell to Evan Smotrycz. The Terps charged back up court, and Wells scored to cut the lead from eight to six with 2:28 left.
From there, Maryland kicked its full-court press into high gear. The Terps don't press often, and they almost never force turnovers. The 8.1 percent of possessions on which they do ranks them 273rd in the country. But Northwestern clearly struggled with the Terps' heightened pressure in their own backcourt.
"I thought the guys on the back end of it kind of ran away from it and left us out to dry," said Bryant McIntosh, the freshman point guard charged with ushering the ball across the half-court line on most of Northwestern's late inbounds.
After Wells's layup, McIntosh and the Wildcats failed to do that. The Terps forced a 10-second violation with 2:16 left, taking the ball back while trailing by six points. Jared Nickens missed a three-pointer, but the Terps still pressured. Layman stole the ball and found Wells, who laid it in again to make the score 63-59.
"We stuck with it," Wells said.
But Northwestern still wouldn't let Maryland all the way back. Cobb hit a high jumper near the shot clock's expiration with 1:26 to play, leaving Maryland down six points again with only 86 seconds to make them up.
On its counter-possession, Maryland worked the ball around the perimeter and under the hoop. As defenders closed in on him, Wells kicked it outside to Layman, the star forward who had only scored 5 points on 2-of-6 shooting in an underwhelming showing to that point. On the right wing, Layman caught the pass and let loose, dropping in a three-pointer to cut the lead to its smallest margin of the half: three points, with 1:05 remaining.
"I was just waiting for that one opportunity to get an open look," Layman said.
Maryland held firm on defense the next time down the court, denying Demps near the basket and following through with a Trimble lay-up to cut the lead to one. Trimble fouled McIntosh on the ensuing inbound, putting McIntosh on the foul line for a one-and-one. He missed the front end of it, and Trimble took the ball end-to-end and drew a foul, putting already one of the better foul shooters in program history on the line with, at last, a chance to take the lead.
Trimble, of course, connected twice, placing Maryland ahead by a point before Demps hit the shot that, on most nights, would have sent his Wildcats back to Evanston with a season-defining victory.
"We gave Tre the space he needed. He knocked down a big shot, and we just didn't get the stop. We got the miss, and we didn't get the block-out, which was tough," Collins said. "It's hard. It's not fun when you lose a game like that."