A rare fast-break opportunity was developing for the Terps as they tried to protect a 12-point lead that had been trimmed to four with a little over three minutes left. But as Morsell got closer to the basket, indecision crept into his mind.
What looked like the possibility for a driving layup by Morsell or a lob pass to Fernando became neither. When Iowa’s Isaiah Moss challenged Morsell, he rushed a low bounce pass in Fernando’s direction that went awry.
It was one of 16 turnovers committed that night by Maryland, including four by Morsell.
Yet the then-No. 24 Terps beat the then-No. 21 Hawkeyes, 66-65, on a tip-in by Fernando with 7.8 seconds left, ending a road losing streak for the program that dated back 11 years and keeping Mark Turgeon’s team in position for a top-four finish in the Big Ten.
The turnover by Morsell — and the result — typified Maryland’s turnaround season.
Going into Wednesday’s game at Penn State, the now-No. 17 Terps (12-5 Big Ten), winners of four of their past five games, are a game ahead of fifth-place Wisconsin (11-6) for a coveted double bye in the conference tournament.
But in several league games, the Terps also seem to be fighting with themselves in their ongoing battle to cut down on turnovers. What appeared to be improving last month has again become a problem for Turgeon to solve heading toward next month’s Big Ten tournament and a likely NCAA tournament berth.
It has become almost unspoken truth for Turgeon, who declined to utter the ‘T’ word to reporters after practice Tuesday.
“The one thing I didn’t even want to mention, you guys know what it is, the thing that’s bothering us with our offense,” Turgeon said not-so-cryptically. “If we can correct that, we can be really good.”
Asked if it’s still something that’s fixable so late in the season, Turgeon said: “I’ve done this long enough to know that sometimes a whole season will go by and you can’t fix it exactly the way you want. But this team’s got a pretty big upside. … There’s still three or four weeks ahead of us where we can get a lot better.”
In averaging a league-worst 13.4 turnovers per game this season, Maryland has committed more than its Big Ten opponent in every game but its win over Indiana last month, when both teams had 11.
At least on the surface, it has not been as costly as one might think in conference games. Maryland’s ability to shoot — the Terps lead the Big Ten in 3-point percentage (.381) and are second to Michigan State in free-throw percentage (.763) — as well as defend (second in overall field-goal percentage defense to the Spartans) have offset its sloppiness.
Yet in many of their losses, it has certainly been a major factor.
Against Illinois at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 26, seven of Maryland’s season-high 21 turnovers came in the last 5:15, turning a game that the Terps led by as many as 12 points in the first half into a 78-67 defeat.
In subsequent losses at then-No. 24 Wisconsin and then-No. 6 Michigan, turnovers gave both the Badgers and Wolverines some breathing room late in the game. The Terps committed eight more turnovers than Wisconsin (12-4) and 10 more than Michigan (16-6).
Freshman wing Aaron Wiggins, whose 26 turnovers in 688 minutes are the fewest of any Terp playing more than 24 minutes minutes a game, wasn’t afraid to address what has been a problem for many of Turgeon’s Maryland teams.
The fewest number of turnovers the Terps have committed under Turgeon came in 2014-15, when a 28-7 team that finished second in the Big Ten at 14-4 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament committed 12.3 a game.
“That costs games. Turnovers, they can easily cost games, and it’s something we work on,” Wiggins said Tuesday. “We watch film and we see every little mistake and we see what it is we need to work on to get better. Of course preventing any type of turnover is going to be better for the team. Keep teams from getting back into the game and be easier wins and stuff.”
More typical of Maryland’s season is what happened in last Saturday’s 72-62 win over Ohio State, when Maryland committed 15 turnovers to only seven for the Buckeyes. In their first meeting this year, won by the Terps, 75-61, Maryland had 19 turnovers compared with 10 for Ohio State.
“I think it’s on us. We’ve got to personally take care of the ball,” Fernando said after Saturday’s game. “We have some silly ones that are not allowed, they’re just unacceptable. It’s understandable. We’re still growing as a team.”
Said junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., whose team-high mark of 2.8 turnovers a game (0.1 more than Fernando) is the same last season: “I keep saying we need to correct it, but it keeps happening. We just need to slow down. I feel like sometimes we just move a little too fast.”
But given the methodical pace the Terps play at compared with other ranked teams that commit a high number of turnovers — fast-breaking Kansas, which has committed nearly the same number (13.3 a game), comes to mind — it appears to be a lack of patience or even recognition of what their opponents are doing defensively.
“It’s frustrating,” Turgeon said a couple of days after the Iowa game. “It’s the passing, and the decision-making. You’re going to have turnovers in a game, certain situations. ... It puts a lot of pressure on on our defense when we have 16 turnovers. We had 16 at Michigan, we had 16 at Iowa. That makes it really hard.”
Morsell said last week that it’s a matter of not trying to get too greedy.
“We’ve just got to take what the defense is giving us … just being smart with the ball I feel like we’ll improve,” he said before the Ohio State game.
In watching tape from Iowa the day after the game, Morsell said: “I looked at what I did wrong, looked at what play I could have made. I just try to learn from it. You can’t go back and change it.”
Morsell said that he couldn’t remember exactly what happened in real time on the botched fast break, but watching it on replay made him think, “ ‘Darryl, what are you doing?,’ ” he recalled. “You kind of question yourself, but you’ve got to get ready for the next play.”
Turgeon said that cutting down on turnovers are addressed in other ways.
“Our guys are smart,” he said. ”We talk about Penn State. We talk about finishing the season strong, we talk about getting better. That’s been our focus. Our ultimate goal is trying to get better and trying to win as many games as possible.”
NOTES: Turgeon said that freshman guard Eric Ayala, who left the Ohio State game in the first half not feeling well and didn’t return, practiced the past two days and will be ready to play against Penn State. After an 0-9 start in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions have won four of their past six, with two straight wins at home (including over then-No. 6 Michigan). The Terps have lost the past two years at Bryce Jordan Center.