Aaron Wiggins says he’s watched the last play of Maryland men’s basketball’s NCAA Tournament second round loss to LSU game a thousand times.
As he does, the different ways it could have ended race through his mind, wondering what could have gotten his team to the Sweet Sixteen.
“I’m thinking like, if that ball bounced, like just one little bounce or one wrong bounce,” Wiggins said earlier this month before letting out a big sigh.
That game sticks with most Maryland players to this day. It’s why the whole team was back in the gym two days after returning from Jacksonville, Florida, despite head coach Mark Turgeon suggesting players take one to two weeks off.
Last season, Maryland was one of the youngest teams in the country. These Terps are still young, but they’re more experienced and know what it’s like to be in a big moment. The loss has altered the team’s mindset heading into this season.
“It created a hunger in all of us,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said. “It’s been a good thing for us.”
That hunger has dramatically changed their approach to this season, in which the Terps will have higher expectations than they’ve faced in years.
“Everybody in here is serious now,” sophomore forward Jalen Smith said. “There’s no days off, there’s no lacking, and everybody’s holding each other accountable for things. A lot more people are in the gym, more than they were last year. It’s crazy how that one loss can impact our whole culture.”
It’s why Turgeon says this is the most hard-working team he’s ever coached. A group of guys that can be found in Xfinity Center getting shots up in the early hours of the morning or late at night. A group of guys that dedicated themselves to the weight room, set on making big jumps for the 2019-20 season.
All sparked by that moment. That one that left Smith walking off the court with tears streaming down his face and a somber locker room filled with red eyes and broken hearts.
Down 67-64 with under a minute to play, the Terps needed someone to step up and be a hero.
Anthony Cowan Jr. drove to the paint, faked a shot, and then found Smith open in the right corner. The rookie took less than a second to catch and shoot, nailing a clutch three to tie the game with 25.8 seconds to go.
After an LSU timeout, guard Tremont Waters received the inbound with 19.5 seconds to play. With eight to go, he made his move to the rack. He maneuvered around center Naz Reid’s screen, drove past Smith and lofted a layup that fell through the bottom of the net with 1.6 ticks remaining.
Morsell hasn’t gone back and watched the end of that game. He doesn’t have to. He remembers it all, being on the court as the final minutes of chaos came to a dramatic close.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he said. “I can see it right now as you talk about it. I don’t want to watch it. I could watch the game, but after the Stix shot, I’d probably turn it off.”
Like many incredible moments in sports history, Smith’s game-tying three-pointer with less than 30 seconds to play is largely forgotten. Because, of course, that’s not how the game ended.
“I go back and watch it once in a while,” Smith said. “I’ll see it on Twitter once in a while, or Instagram. Just watching and seeing we were in that moment, it’s a cool thing to look at and a bad thing to look at because we lost.”
The Terps are constantly reminded of the heartbreaking loss. Waters’ shot went viral and made its way around every social media site. Morsell has been able to avoid it, but others haven’t been so lucky.
“It was all over Twitter afterwards,” Wiggins said. “At first, I was off my phone, off social media for a little bit. But eventually, it’s going to keep popping up. And that’s something I have to live with.”
There’s no way of knowing how Maryland’s season would have ended had Waters’ shot missed. Perhaps the Terps lose in overtime. Maybe they pull off the win and go on a run deeper into the tournament. In March, anything can happen.
But March has come and gone, and it’s now October. The 2019-20 season is right around the corner, with the opener against Holy Cross less than two weeks away. Last year’s defeat will likely never be forgotten, but these Terps have a chance to make new memories that can live on forever.
“Seeing how close we were and seeing that last second layup Tremont Waters hit, it was a really big deal for the guys who returned this year,” Wiggins said. “Everybody was hurt. Everybody felt like we could have made it deeper, we could have had a deep run last year. And we want to get back to it this year.”