Jacksonville, Fla. — It’s hard to imagine sophomore guard Darryl Morsell giving Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon any problems, considering he prides himself more on defense than offense and carries himself with more quiet bravado than noticeable swag.
Yet at least twice during the season — immediately after the team’s opener against Delaware on Nov. 6 and again after the Terps were blown out Feb. 27 at Penn State — Turgeon brought the former Mount Saint Joseph standout in for a chat.
The first meeting came after Maryland couldn’t easily put away the Blue Hens, seeing a 22-point lead chopped to three in what became a 73-67 victory. Turgeon proceeded to replace Morsell in the starting lineup, with freshman Eric Ayala, for a road game against Navy in the Veterans Classic.
“Coach kind of talked to me about being a leader,” Morsell recalled Friday. “We’ve got a young team. I’m a sophomore, but I’m one of the older guys on the court most of the time. So rather than just leading with my voice, he kind of wanted me to lead more by example."
Asked what was holding him back, Morsell said, “I honestly don’t know. I guess I had to grow up quick. Maybe initially [the leadership role] came too quick for me, but I’ve accepted it since then and these younger guys have been listening and accepting everything we’ve said.”
The second meeting came after Morsell turned the ball over twice early at Penn State, and didn’t get back on defense as Nittany Lions guard Myles Dread drilled a pair of 3-pointers. It set the tone for a game in which the Terps committed 17 turnovers, including four by Morsell, in a 78-61 loss.
Asked about the two meetings he had with Morsell, Turgeon said Friday, “Two things happened. One is total buy-in, OK? So if you don’t totally buy in — and lucky for him, we are a young team, so he was able to keep his spot through a lot of mistakes he was making. But he had total buy-in after the Penn State game.”
What Morsell took from those meetings is part of the reason sixth-seeded Maryland, a year removed from not making the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons, is still playing and will face third-seeded LSU on Saturday in the Round of 32 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
The winner will go to the Sweet 16 at Capital One Arena in Washington.
While the Terps still had some bumps after losing at Penn State — the biggest being a 69-61 defeat to 13th-seeded Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten tournament — Morsell is in the middle of the most impressive stretch of his college career.
Over Maryland’s past four games, Morsell has averaged 13 points — more than 4½ above his season’s average — and has made 20 of 38 shots, including four of 10 3-pointers. Most impressive, the once-turnover-prone Morsell has just one turnover against 14 assists in 131 minutes during that stretch.
Aside from matching his career high of 18 points in Thursday’s 79-77 win over 11th-seeded Belmont in the Round of 64, Morsell was in on two of the game’s biggest plays in the last two minutes. That helped the Terps overcome a 67-60 deficit with 6:58 to play.
The first came with Maryland leading 74-73 after sophomore center Bruno Fernando had a shot blocked with 1:49 to play. As the players fell to the ground, the ball popped loose and Morsell grabbed it, quickly feeding former Mount Saint Joseph teammate Jalen Smith, who dunked as he was fouled.
The second came with Belmont down 78-77 and a chance to play for the game-winner with less than 30 seconds left. Hearing his teammates yelling “Back door, back door!” from the bench, Morsell grabbed a pass that had been tipped by teammate Eric Ayala and was fouled.
Morsell made the first of two free throws and Belmont star Dylan Windler (35 points) missed a halfcourt shot in the final second as the Terps broke a five-game postseason losing streak.
Asked if he prefers to make those kinds of plays than score, Morsell said Friday, “For sure. I’m that type of guy, that glue guy, that hustle guy. I definitely take pride in making plays that help the team win.”
After watching tape of Maryland before practice Friday, LSU junior guard Skylar Mays said of Morsell, “He’s their X factor for me. You pretty much know what you’re going to get from [Anthony Cowan Jr.] and Ayala, Fernando and Smith, but I feel like he’s the guy that brings that toughness, that edge. He makes a lot of plays for them.”
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Morsell is a bigger, stronger, more versatile player than Richaud Pack was as a senior on Turgeon’s first NCAA tournament team at Maryland in 2014-15. Though that team was led by others — namely senior guard Dez Wells and freshman guard Melo Trimble — Pack had a hand in several of the team’s wins that season.
“Darryl is somebody I look to as far as being that tough guy out there, carrying that mentality on and off the court, and it spreads throughout the team,” Ayala said Thursday. “When we need it, it spreads throughout the team. It’s a key thing for us.”
It certainly impacted Smith, Morsell’s teammate for three seasons at Mount Saint Joseph, against Belmont. The 6-10 freshman forward, whose aggressiveness has fluctuated throughout the season, took over inside down the stretch and finished with a team-high 19 points as well as 12 rebounds.
Morsell said he and Fernando delivered an early message to the team’s talented freshman class about the disappointment of not making the NCAA tournament last season.
“These guys came in hungry, every single one of them, and they’ve done well,” Morsell said.
While the freshmen had to make the transition to college basketball and the rugged Big Ten, Morsell had to find his role as a complementary offensive player all season and a defensive stopper for the second half of the year.
“Just have the ability to be flexible, guard different positions, being versatile offensively and defensively helped me stay on the floor,” Morsell said.
It goes back to the way he was raised as a player.
“My dad had me playing on three different teams at one time,” Morsell said. “I was a point guard on one team, a wing on another working on my shot and playing as a big man on a third. I was 8 years old and probably playing in three different age groups.”
Morsell didn’t get too excited about scoring as many points as he did against Belmont in his first NCAA tournament game.
“I’m not really focusing on numbers,” he said. “I just want to win. If I have two points tomorrow [against LSU] and we win, I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m just going to make plays when I feel like I can make plays and just be that X-factor guy that helps the team find a way to win.”