ORLANDO, Fla. — Thursday’s game against Xavier afforded the Maryland men’s basketball team a chance to add to its achievements this season.
After their best start in program history, the Terps were making their third straight NCAA tournament appearance, this time with three freshmen starters. As a No. 6 seed, they battled the Musketeers in the Amway Center to try for their 13th straight first-round victory in the Big Dance.
Even after losing six of their past 10 games, coach Mark Turgeon assured his team hit “the reset button” entering Thursday’s contest. But the renewed charge didn’t help his squad halt its month-long slide.
In Maryland’s season-ending 76-65 loss to Xavier, it couldn’t contain leading scorer Trevon Bluiett despite a stout first-half defensive effort. It endured scoreless spells against the Musketeers’ zone defense. When it appeared in control, going up six in the second half, Xavier’s 21-4 run presented an insurmountable deficit in the upset defeat.
“I felt like we went up six, we got to relax and they started hitting shots and running [the] offense really well,” guard Melo Trimble said. “We just couldn’t capitalize and didn’t defensive rebound very well and wasn’t executing on the offensive end.”
Bluiett led all scorers with 21 points after shooting 1-for-8 in the first half. His five 3-pointers helped Xavier maintain a comfortable lead whenever the Terps threatened to come back in the final 20 minutes. Terps guard Kevin Huerter scored a team-high 16 points, while fellow freshman Justin Jackson (14 points) and Trimble (12 points) also finished in double figures.
Guard Anthony Cowan’s layup at the 16:04 mark put Maryland ahead, 46-40, but Xavier erased its largest deficit in less than 90 seconds. Trailing, 50-47, about a minute later, the Musketeers reeled off 14-straight points behind four 3-pointers to go up double digits.
Maryland never pulled within six points from there.
“They had different guys hit shots,” Huerter said, “and we just couldn’t keep up.”
While Bluiett’s 18 second-half points led Xavier’s run, five players finished with at least nine points. Role players, such as guard Kaiser Gates, who hit three triples, and center Sean O’Mara (18 points and 8-for-9 from the line), gave the Musketeers depth and versatility the Terps couldn’t match.
Trimble, Jackson and Huerter produced for Maryland, which at first struggled against Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone but executed as the half progressed. After starting 2-for-10 from beyond the arc, the Terps made three of their six long-range attempts. They started running their offense through the player standing at the free throw line, a tactic that produced easy layups and open three-pointers. Down as many as nine points, Maryland tied the game at 30 about four minutes before intermission.
Jackson made both of his triples to power a 10-point first-half performance that included an and-one dunk over O’Mara. He received help from Huerter, who added nine points before the break, while Trimble’s steal and layup with under a minute remaining gave the Terps their first lead since the 13:58 mark.
A rejuvenated Maryland bench stood up for the first half’s final moments, watching a missed Xavier floater ensure it entered halftime with a 36-35 advantage.
But the bench had little to cheer about as Xavier built its lead after intermission. The Musketeers began changing defenses, which the Terps said took them out of their offensive rhythm. At the end, Maryland fouled its opponent and hoped it missed its free throws.
With less than a minute to play, Turgeon subbed out senior forward Damonte Dodd. The two embraced before the Centreville native sat next to his teammates on the bench for the final time.
Trimble, playing perhaps his last game in a Maryland uniform, dribbled the ball until the final buzzer sounded. Then, as the Xavier players celebrated a first-round upset, the junior star bowed his head and walked off the court with his sullen teammates after their fifth loss in seven games.
“We just weren’t the same team down the stretch,” Turgeon said. “It wasn’t a lack of effort. We tried. We practice hard every day. This team was committed. Loved being around this team. Just couldn’t get it done late.”