It was one of those nights for Maryland men’s basketball. The Terps were good but their opponent was demonstrably better.
Yet, somehow, Maryland found itself nearing another upset, just a possession away from leading.
The Spartans delayed their chance to ice the game by giving up consecutive costly inbound turnovers, eventually setting up an inspired Terp squad, who once trailed by 20 points, with an opportunity to lead and likely take the win.
Down, 72-74, The game’s leading scorer and Maryland’s lone spark plug, Fatts Russell, was the triggerman who took the three with the hopes of finally putting the Terps’ latest long-haul contest to rest. But his step back three-pointer didn’t fall.
One last time, Maryland (15-17, 7-14 B1G) showed uncompromising heart and limitless energy for a floundering, under .500 team. But the big plays mounted and the Terps’ postseason hopes quickly vanished with each passing bucket.
And even Michigan State’s worst miscues couldn’t prevent what already was — a game well under the Spartans’ control as its lead gradually slipped away. When the buzzer sounded for the last time after a pair of finalizing free throws, Maryland suffered its final loss of the season, 76-72.
“I’m really proud of the effort … over the course of this year,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “It was a unique and challenging year, to say the least, and these guys really brought it every day — and left it all on the floor.”
It was fitting that the 2021-22 season came with a concluding loss as grueling as this. Every Maryland blow came with an equal or more impressive Michigan State response. Every momentum-inducing play for Maryland came with a crowd-silencing and commanding Michigan State answer.
Much of the Spartan success was a product of poor Maryland defense and the rest was simply because Michigan State was riding a night of hot shooting.
In a sequence that typified Maryland’s undoing, Eric Ayala slashed to the basket for a crafty left-handed layup and crashed to the floor. Immediately off the inbound, the Spartans took heed of the five-on-one advantage with Ayala catching up to the break and promptly found a wide open Max Christie from three to pull away from striking distance. A one possession, 32-35, lead Ayala created, went back to two, 32-38, and eventually neared double-digits at the half’s end.
The last field goal of the half that extended the Spartans’ lead to nine came off a Russell steal that rolled right into the hands of Jaden Akins, who splashed a quick three with the shot clock expiring.
Immediately after watching the ball swish through the rim, there was a collective sense of disbelief that was resonant, but momentary. Shoulders drooped and the Terps’ bench sat down.
And they came with the same, nonstop resolve in the following quarter.
“I knew we was gonna be in the game at some point,” Ayala said. “So it was just a matter of time before we got going and, you know, figuring it out.”
After leading by double-digits for 17 minutes (at one point leading by 57-37) of the entire closing half, Michigan State began to waver. The Spartans’ once 57% mark from the floor dropped drastically and only two threes converted in the final half after seven of 11 attempts went through in the opening period.
And Maryland took advantage. Russell attacked the basket and drew fouls and the Terps forced turnovers and attacked the glass.
Suddenly, Russell converted a three to cut the lead to 68-65 and after the first of three ill-advised inbound passes, he found himself completing a three point play to bring the lead down to 70-68.
The second missed inbound that allowed for an easy Ayala layup maintained the two-point lead, but the third, that barely grazed off the fingers of Tyson Walker as a result of Ayala’s pressure, set up Russell’s game-winning chance.
Even after the triple rimmed out and Maryland’s season reached an official conclusion, there was a sense of admiration for what the Terps managed to accomplish this season — battling to the last game and to the last minute, especially when there was considerable reason to quit or ease off focus.
“Nobody ever quit. Nobody ever put they head down,” Russell said. “We have a team full of fighters in the locker room. I’m just proud of everybody.”