JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mark Turgeon couldn’t hide his emotions as he took the dais for his press conference following Maryland basketball’s season-ending loss to LSU on Saturday afternoon. The Terps’ postseason run had just come to a screeching halt, as LSU star point guard Tremont Waters sank a tiebreaking layup with 1.6 seconds remaining. All Turgeon could think about in the following moments was how much he loved his team.
“The hardest part about today is I love coaching these guys,” he said. “You know, we started at the summer, we went on a trip and we stuck together, and it was a grind. Our schedule was ridiculous. We had eight of 11 on the road. It was a grind. And these guys, they kept trying for me, and we really pushed for this weekend.”
The Terps finished with a 23-11 record, including a 13-7 mark against a daunting Big Ten schedule. In narrowly beating Belmont in the Round of 64 Thursday, they earned their first postseason victory since 2016. It’s not some signature season for Maryland, which has Final Fours and a national championship in its 100-year history and in its future aspirations, but this group left plenty to build on.
And they did it together. This Maryland team was not only incredibly young—five freshmen and no seniors in the top eight, one of the youngest teams in the country, etc.—but it was incredibly tight. While the summer trip to Italy certainly helped, it’s not easy to gather personalities that mix together this well. As early as mid-October, when the Terps were jumping around at the Midnight Mile, it was clear the culture had changed for the better.
“We always stuck together as a team. We never broke down, we never went our separate ways,” sophomore center Bruno Fernando said in the locker room Saturday. “We always stayed together, we always tried to do the best that we can, each and every one of us, to help our team, just doing little things to put us in a better position. And I think we’ve done that, and everybody’s very proud of that. But it sucks that we lost the game and our season came to an end early, but it happens to the best of us, and we’ve just got to learn and move on from there.”
It was a season of bouncebacks, both on the micro and macro levels. The Terps returned to the NCAA Tournament after being left out last spring. They went 8-2 after losses, most notably earning an NCAA Tournament win after going one-and-done in the Big Ten tournament. And in countless games, they shook off slow starts and played like better versions of themselves in the second half. Overcoming failure and adversity isn’t easy, and this Maryland team did it time and time again.
“Certain people have dog in them. I have a lot of respect for people that can keep going,” senior guard Andrew Terrell said. “There’s not many people that can shoot a ball on a national stage, miss once and then hit the next. There’s just not. I don’t care who you are, there’s a lot of pressure in this stuff.”
That collective fight can be drawn back to the team’s camaraderie. When players made big plays, they were celebrated. When they made mistakes, they were picked up. And they cared about each other as people even more than as teammates. Five-star freshman forward Jalen Smith, who hit some of Maryland’s biggest shots this season, said his favorite memory of the year was Ivan Bender’s engagement on senior night.
Smith’s play on the court is a great example of all this. He was solid but inconsistent all season; he’d toss up a double-double one game and be invisible the next. Through it all, teammates and coaches made it a priority to keep his confidence up. And on the biggest stage of the year, he delivered. Smith dropped 19 points, 12 rebounds and this monster dunk on Belmont, then followed that up with 15 points, eight boards and five blocks against LSU. With his team down three in the final seconds Saturday, he took a corner triple despite being 0-for-4 in the game and knocked it down for the tie.
“I had a lot of ups and downs this season. I had a lot of good games, had a lot of bad games. But there’s a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons I’ve learned throughout the season,” Smith said. “I feel like I improved as a man and as a basketball player throughout the whole season with Coach Turgeon guiding me and all the coaches guiding me, and just being able to say that I’m here is a blessing.”
Everyone in the Terps’ top eight has eligibility remaining, although Fernando is a likely first-round NBA draft pick and Smith could certainly at least test the waters in the coming months. No matter the exact configuration of the roster, though, Maryland will enter 2019-20 with an incredibly tight-knit group hungry to further establish itself in the national landscape.
“We never had one selfish guy on this team,” Fernando said. “We all cared about each other, we all love being around each other, we all just do everything for each other, and that’s the part that’s special, just how much we care for each other.
“And obviously it sucks, it hurts today, but we’ll still try to lift each other up and make us understand that it happens and it’s not the last chance we’re gonna get.”