JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — With 16 minutes remaining in the second half of Maryland basketball’s NCAA Tournament matchup with LSU on Saturday, head coach Mark Turgeon had had enough. Seconds after putting in Joshua Tomaic and Ricky Lindo in to get Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith a breather right before the under-16 timeout, Tomaic was called for a moving screen. Turgeon was called for a technical foul.
Tremont Waters hit the ensuing free throws to push LSU’s lead to 46-31, and it looked like things were beginning to unravel. But Turgeon’s technical seemed to light a fire in the Terps, who battled back and took their first lead of the game on a Jalen Smith free throw with 5:52 to go.
Maryland appeared to be in control from that point on, but a three from Skylar Mays gave the Tigers a 67-64 lead with 40 seconds remaining. Following a timeout, Anthony Cowan Jr. drove and kicked to Smith, who hit his biggest shot of the season to tie the game, sending the Terps’ bench into bedlam.
That energy did not last long. After an LSU timeout, Tremont Waters bled the clock until it showed seven. Using a screen from Naz Reid, Waters took one dribble and hesitated, giving him enough leverage to get by Smith. Using the gap, Waters snuck by the 6’10 freshman for a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining, ending Maryland’s season.
A game that had everyone on the edge of their seats ended in a flash.
Once Eric Ayala’s three-quarter-court heave was off the mark, LSU players made a beeline toward Waters. The junior was mobbed by everyone in purple and gold, and then got drenched after finishing his postgame media duties. When he taped LSU’s name to the bracket that goes into the winning team’s locker room, he smiled and said: “We’re not going home.”
“In the moment, I kind of blacked out,” Waters said about the final play. “I didn’t hear anything, I just faked the ball to [Skylar Mays], and at that point, I just zoned out. I didn’t hear anything, I just knew I had to get to the rim.”
Even after the pandemonium stopped, there were plenty of smiles in the Tigers locker room. Darius Days and Emmitt Williams fist-pumped each other during an interview. Redshirt sophomore Courtese Cooper and redshirt freshman Aundre Hyatt were sitting by their lockers, munching on pizza and soaking in the scene.
“To be a part of it was amazing,” LSU freshman Naz Reid said. “Not many people are. For me to be a part of that type of game, it feels great.”
While LSU was ecstatic, Maryland was despondent. As he walked from the locker room to the press conference, Turgeon had to wipe away tears. Before he made his opening statement, the eighth-year Terps head coach put his head in his hands, still in disbelief over how the game ended.
“We gave it everything we had,” Turgeon said. “They deserve better. They deserved better today. That’s why I’m disappointed.”
The scene was more of the same in the Maryland locker room. Lindo was sitting at his locker, staring straight at the floor with his head between his hands. Smith, who burst into tears right as the game ended, stared straight ahead looking dazed, still in disbelief in how the game ended.
Cowan, who usually doesn’t say much, had finally had enough, draping the hood of his sweatshirt over his head after talking to the media. As the open locker room came to a close, Fernando sat with a towel over his head as a character coach tried to pick him up in what could be his last game at Maryland. As they answered questions, there were a lot of long pauses, partially to think of an answer and partially to compose themselves after a game Ayala called the toughest loss of his career.
“That’s March Madness for you right there,” Ayala said. “Obviously maybe one possession could’ve went our way, one foul, could’ve went our way anything. We were just one possession away from going to the Sweet 16.”
As is typical (and probably unfair) in March, one play can switch the narrative of an entire season. If the Terps hit more free throws down the stretch, the story is how the switch to a zone defense and huge plays by Smith powered a young team to an unlikely comeback. LSU would be facing questions about whether the suspension of coach Will Wade was too big of a distraction to overcome. Instead, the players talked about how the doubters outside the locker room just bring them closer together.
One team is now two wins away from the Final Four. The other has nearly eight months to ponder what if. For Maryland, that will only add more motivation to a group that has most of its core returning, even as Fernando likely declares for the NBA draft and Smith’s future is still up in the air. But it will take a long time to forget Waters, slithering his way past both bigs, ending the Terps’ season in an instant.