Overshadowed by Jalen Smith’s fifth straight double double and career-high six blocks, the second-half play of Smith’s former Mount Saint Joseph teammate Darryl Morsell might have been the key to Maryland’s fifth straight men’s basketball win, 56-51 over Rutgers on Tuesday night.
Normally the team’s glue guy, Morsell helped the Terps break out of their first-half offensive slump.
The first half of Tuesday’s game ended with Maryland trailing 25-20, having not scored a field goal for more than nine minutes while missing its last 11 shots and committing five turnovers.
Morsell, whose 3-pointer early in the half gave the Terps a 14-6 lead, missed two layups and turned the ball over once during that stretch. He missed two other layups in the half.
“At halftime, Coach [Mark] Turgeon challenged me, Anthony [Cowan Jr.] challenged me, [assistant] Coach [DeAndre] Haynes challenged me,” Morsell said after the game. "I don’t know what was going on in the first half. I was missing layups, the rim is blocking my layups and stuff like that.
“I kind of just talked to myself and told myself when I drive, I’m going to try to jump as high as I can and try to dunk it. Just make plays for other people and stuff like that. I got challenged by some coaches and some veteran guys and accepted their challenge basically.”
Morsell’s flying two-handed dunk that cut Maryland’s deficit to 27-24 early in the second half might not have been the biggest play of the game, but it certainly helped shake the Terps from their first-half offensive nightmare.
The junior guard quickly followed with a drive and a dunk after Cowan missed on a drive and two Rutgers players had a momentary lapse, allowing Morsell to pick up the loose ball and stuff it back in to cut the deficit to 29-28.
Morsell wound up with 14 points, 11 of them in the second half, including hitting three of four free-throw attempts in the final 52 seconds. (The last two came after Morsell pulled down a defensive rebound and was fouled before falling to the court and cramping up.)
Turgeon said the difference in the second half was not just in Morsell’s altitude, but his attitude.
“Instead of moping because they weren’t guarding him, he got more active," Turgeon said. "That’s the way teams guard Darryl. Teams guard Darryl that way so you just have to be active and his energy level was different. His attitude was different. It’s really just that simple.”
Even Smith, who had his own highlight dunk shortly after Morsell’s when he took a no-look feed from sophomore Eric Ayala and finished a three-point play, gave his longtime friend and teammate his props.
“That was truly amazing,” Smith said of Morsell’s dunks. “I had never — not say never — but that was a rare-occasion dunk from Darryl and it hyped the whole crowd up, and we just went on from there.”
Maryland is 11-0 this season when Morsell scores in double figures.
Can ‘Stix’ follow Bruno as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year?
One of the biggest questions going into the 2019-20 season was whether Jalen Smith was up to the task of replacing former teammate Bruno Fernando as Maryland’s primary rim protector. Because of his still-lanky frame, many teams figured they could bully the sophomore forward inside.
The questions only grew when twin freshmen Makhi and Makhel Mitchell left the team in late December, leaving 6-foot-9 redshirt junior Josh Tomaic, 6-8 sophomore Ricky Lindo Jr. and 7-2 freshman Chol Marial as Smith’s backups.
After showing flashes of it last season — particularly with a then-career-high five blocks in Maryland’s season-ending NCAA tournament loss to LSU in Jacksonville, Florida — and in a couple of games earlier this season, Smith is becoming every bit the defensive force that Fernando was last season.
His six blocks against Rutgers followed a five-block performance against Iowa and gave the 6-foot-10 sophomore 17 rejections in his past five games. Smith’s 2.5 blocks per game rank third in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s Mike Watkins (2.8) and Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu (2.6).
What separates Smith from Fernando is his ability to stay out of foul trouble.
“He’s really a smart player, and he has tremendous length, so he’s been able to use that length to affect shots without fouling,” Turgeon said before the Rutgers game. "To be a good post defender, you have to play with your feet. Stix has great feet, so he moves those well. He anticipates.
"Then we gang post-defend. We don’t double [team] all the time, but we’re always aware of what’s going on. We’re always thinking about how we’re going to keep ‘Stix’ out of foul trouble down there.”
Smith had five blocks in the second half Tuesday.
Cowan said that he saw Smith’s ascension into one of the Big Ten’s top players begin last summer.
“I remember seeing him all the way back in pick-up last summer, but he’s been great for us, especially on the defensive end," Cowan said. “That’s what we need, and he’s been very consistent with that.”
Of Smith’s latest double double, his 13th this season, Cowan said: “It’s huge, we’ve needed it. Fifteen [rebounds], 14 [points] six blocks. I mean that’s a pretty good stat line, we’ve needed every bit of it tonight.”
Cowan isn’t too excited about being tied for first place.
The combination of Maryland’s win over Rutgers and Michigan State’s home loss to Penn State a couple of hours later gave the Terps a share of first place with Illinois. The teams will meet Friday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois.
It marks the latest date Maryland has been in first place since the 2015-16 season.
Maryland started 10-2 in the Big Ten that season and was tied with Indiana. But back-to-back losses to Wisconsin at home and to then-winless Minnesota on the road started a late-season slump in which the Terps lost four of their last six regular-season games. Picked to win the league, Maryland finished 12-6, tied for third.
“We’re not there yet. We’re still tied, and we still got a lot of basketball to play,” Cowan said.
Asked if it was worth a “little smile," Cowan wouldn’t budge.
“Not when you feel like you’ve been having the same type of year for four years,” Cowan said. “I feel like we’ve been here a lot. I think last year we were winning a lot of games at the top [of the schedule], then it slowly fizzled down. We’ve got to stay locked in. ... No off days, no cruising at practice, keep getting better day in and day out."
NO. 9 MARYLAND@ILLINOIS
Friday, 8 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM