"I just didn't think it was possible," forward James Gist said.
"But it happened."
Clemson's comeback was unbelievable, Maryland's collapse unfathomable. Clemson finished the game on an 18-2 run, and freshman guard Terrence Oglesby hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left for the 73-70 win.
As the final buzzer sounded, many in the capacity crowd at Comcast Center had their hands on their heads, silent, unable to in comprehend what they had just witnessed. Maryland's players solemnly jogged off the court and through the tunnel, some slapping fans' hands, others with a blank stare ahead. Did this really just happen?
At the 11:21 mark in the second half, Maryland extended its lead to 59-39 on a Greivis Vasquez lay up. Clemson coach Oliver Purnell called a timeout, and the crowd rose to its feet with raucous applause, sure Maryland would cruise to victory. It would have been crazy to think otherwise. Maryland coach Gary Williams even summoned senior walk-on Jason McAlpin off the bench for one last hurrah. The game was in hand.
Then Clemson went on a seemingly innocent 8-0 run. A double-digit lead was still intact, so no big worry. Maryland might have lost some of its focus, but maintained a comfortable lead and was up 68-55 with 4 minutes and 48 seconds left. The problem, though, was that a Maryland player wouldn't score thereafter—its final two points came when Clemson forward James Mays tipped in a Maryland shot. Another problem was that Clemson scored 18 more points.
How was it all possible? In the second half, Clemson had 11 offensive rebounds, only three turnovers and played with a lot more heart. Maryland, meanwhile, couldn't make important free throws, couldn't hit a big 3-pointer, couldn't get a defensive stop down the stretch, couldn't handle Clemson's relentless pressure, and couldn't slow down Clemson's momentum.
"They just kept coming," forward Jerome Burney said.
"We couldn't break that press," Vasquez said. "We just couldn't score."
"They were able to do pretty much what they wanted to do," Williams said. "I think that was the big difference."
The night started and progressed ideally. On Maryland's first possession, McAlpin threw a beautiful pass to guard Eric Hayes for an easy lay up—a great moment for the walk-on making the start. Vasquez flirted with a triple-double, recording 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists before Clemson started its comeback. Maryland received an excellent performance from its bench—Adrian Bowie had 12 points on 6-of-6 from the field and Burney added six points and four blocks.
And then it unraveled.
It was Maryland's biggest collapse since blowing a 22-point lead against Duke in the 2001 Final Four. But that lead was in the first half against the eventual national champion. This was at home, on senior night, not against a national title contender. Clemson is good, maybe even very good. But no matter what degree of "good" you want to label the Tigers, a 20-point lead with 11 minutes and 21 seconds left should be safe.
Where, then, does Maryland go from here? It sits at 8-7 in the ACC and 18-12 overall with the regular season finale on Sunday at Virginia. A win last night would have all but put Maryland in the NCAA tournament. Instead it enters desperation mode with a real bad taste in its mouth, one that might not go away soon enough.
"It's really tough recover, especially given the situation tonight," Williams said. "It's something that's very difficult to do and all the teams with strong character recover from a game like that. That can be devastating, there's no doubt about it.
"It's one of those things where it stays with you. There's great wins that stay with you for a long time and there's losses that stay with you for a long time. This is going to stay with me for a long time."
Maryland's character will be tested in the week it has to let last night's game marinate and to prepare for Virginia. How will the players approach practice? Can they move on? Will they give up, or rally together? Nobody will know for sure until next Sunday.
And on Sunday, the Cavs' senior night, Virginia will honor one of its best players ever, Sean Singletary, who will play his final regular season home game. They will play for him, meaning they'll be extremely tough. It will be difficult for Maryland, backed into a corner once again.
"We'll see how that goes," Williams said. "We'll see what we're made of this week."
A Stunning Collapse
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