The look on Thad Matta’s face told the whole tale.
Ohio State’s head coach sat down for his postgame press conference Sunday, his voice hoarse, with a look of disappointment. He knew his team's 66-61 loss to eighth-ranked Maryland at Value City Arena was a missed opportunity.
“We had that stretch where we had some shots at the basket that just didn’t go down and they they hit a couple big 3s there down the stretch," Matta said. “But veteran players make veteran plays and I thought [Maryland] did a heck of a job sticking with what they were trying to do and that was probably the difference.”
It was blown chance because the Buckeyes were desperate for a win over a quality opponent. They only have one this season — a 74-67 victory over Kentucky way back on Dec. 19 — and as the season winds down, opportunities for Ohio State to earn signature wins are running out.
The game was there for the taking and the Terps took it.
Sunday was a complete contrast to the last time the Buckeyes and Maryland squared off. That one was a 35-point win for the Terps and was Matta’s worst loss as Ohio State’s coach. This time, the Buckeyes were quite competitive.
Ohio State led 51-50 with 6 minutes, 4 seconds to play and with 4:02 to go, the Buckeyes were only down one at 54-53. But after that, 3-pointers by Rasheed Sulaimon and Melo Trimble on consecutive possessions gave Maryland a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, and the Terps closed things out down the stretch by making six-straight free throws.
Maryland flexed its muscles a bit in the closing minutes and showed why it was a Final Four caliber team. The Terrapins were a dismal 2 for 13 from behind the 3-point line for the game’s first 37 minutes, but when they needed clutch baskets, Sulaimon and Trimble both stepped up.
That “big-time players make big-time plays” sports cliché? This was it.
“I definitely thought that going in, the last 10 minutes of the game, that we had this one,” said Ohio State sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate, who led the Buckeyes with 16 points and five rebounds. “But give them credit, Maryland is a top-five team.”
Ohio State was not expected to win this game, of course, but it certainly had a chance to win it and that’s why the disappointment was there. The Buckeyes have a bit of work to do to even be considered for the NCAA tournament and Sunday was the perfect opportunity for them to earn a signature win.
With games against Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State (twice) still ahead on the schedule, Ohio State still has a few chances to earn a few of those much-needed victories against quality opponents. But there’s no doubt the clock is ticking, and that’s why Sunday’s loss stung so much.
“There’s still a lot of basketball to be played; nothing is set in stone,” Tate said. “We can still make [the NCAA tournament], in my opinion.”
It's clear Ohio State made progress in just those two short weeks following that disaster in College Park. But sometimes, in the college basketball world, being better still is not quite good enough.
That was the case Sunday. The hope now for Ohio State, of course, is that it finds a way to win a few of these big games down the stretch without dropping any of the others.
Because time is one thing the Buckeyes do not have.
“We learned a lot about ourselves over the course of a three-week span or two-week span,” Matta said. “I think from the standpoint of this team has grown up a lot if you think back to where we were in late November to where we are today and you’ve got to find some positives. We had a chance to win the basketball game, but I give Maryland all the credit, they did a heck of a job of making some big plays down the stretch."
“We were inches away and we’ve got to continue to — we’ve got to close that gap of that inch,” Matta continued. “We had a real good opportunity today, but we just didn’t get it done.”