GREENSBORO, N.C. - Nineteen hours after toppling a giant, the University of Maryland's players dug deep at Greensboro Coliseum, conjuring whatever faint magic remained in their aching bodies. But the exhausted Terrapins, many of them too wired to sleep the previous night, were summoned back to reality Saturday before a deafening crowd wearing Carolina blue.
Down three points to the University of North Carolina with 10.9 seconds remaining, Coach Mark Turgeon scribbled the game-tying play onto his dry-erase board. Nick Faust would inbound, just in front of Maryland's bench. Seth Allen and Dez Wells would curl off Alex Len, decoys for Logan Aronhalt. Then Turgeon talked about getting back on defense, certain his smartest player and deadliest sharpshooter wouldn't miss.
Everything went perfectly. Aronhalt came off Len's screen into open space, but the senior transfer broke too high and his shoulders weren't squared to the basket. A deep three-point attempt found nothing but air. And one day after upsetting second-seeded Duke University, the No. 7 seed Terrapins came up empty against third-seeded North Carolina, suffering a 79-76 loss in the ACC tournament semifinals that likely doomed them to the National Invitation Tournament.
"Coach drew it up that way," Aronhalt said. "We ran that play a couple times before, and we got open shots on it. When I came off, I was a step too far and I didn't have my shoulders squared to the basket. When it's that deep and I don't have my shoulders square, it's an impossible shot for anyone. I can shoot it from deep, but I have to be straight on. Everything's got to be perfect."
That the Terps (22-12) had possession with an opportunity to tie was miraculous enough. Layups rimmed out. They lost 50-50 balls as the Tar Heels looked to bury a Maryland team with seemingly nothing left in the tank. With his team down 75-72 after a layup by Wells, Len whiffed on a block attempt when North Carolina freshman point guard Marcus Paige - 13 inches shorter than the Terrapins' center - lofted a teardrop floater. Free throws gave the Tar Heels (24-9) enough distance to hang on.
North Carolina now moves onto the ACC title game, where top-seeded University of Miami awaits. The Hurricanes bulldozed North Carolina State University in Saturday's first act, 81-71, behind Durand Scott's career-high 32 points, opening up a 12-point lead at halftime and coasting. A win would make the Hurricanes just the third team outside of North Carolina in the past 20 years to win the conference tournament.
The Terps, meanwhile, will board their flight home to College Park, Md., faces still stained with tears as their postseason fate appears punched. They likely would have needed the ACC's automatic bid to reach the NCAA tournament, and an NIT bid now seems certain. But given where Maryland was three weeks ago, in desperation mode after a loss at Georgia Tech University, a semifinal appearance here was enough to turn heads.
"I couldn't be more proud of our group," Turgeon said. "We came up a little short. Sometimes you don't win on the scoreboard, but you win. And we won today as a program. Our program got better."
With Wells (15 points on 6-of-15 shooting) effectively silenced, inflicted with the same case of missed layups that plagued his teammates, Faust's five three-pointers and Len's 20 points helped Maryland keep pace. But North Carolina's Reggie Bullock had a monster game: 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers. James Michael McAdoo and Dexter Strickland combined for 28 points. And P.J. Hairston, just hours removed from receiving eight stiches on his non-shooting hand, added 13.
In a few months, Wells said, the sting will fade. By then, the Terps can look back on their ACC tournament experience and see a changed team, far from the group that played itself out of NCAA tournament contention with a season-ending collapse at the University of Virginia. They won't hold any group gathering on Selection Sunday. Before long, they'll return to practice, with another tournament - NCAA, NIT, whatever - in their sights.
"We play for each other," point guard Pe'Shon Howard said. "We play for the people in this locker room. Whenever we step between the lines, we never want to let anyone down. That's our main motivation."