JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — When Jalen Smith followed Darryl Morsell from Mount Saint Joseph to Maryland last year, it was with the idea of helping the Terps return to the NCAA tournament after Mark Turgeon’s team failed to play in the postseason when Morsell was a freshman.
There were times this season when Smith and Morsell experienced some of the success they had during the three years they played together in Baltimore, though nothing quite like what happened Thursday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
Playing on the biggest stage they had ever shared — the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament — Smith and Morsell carried the Terps from a late seven-point deficit and the brink of another early season-ending elimination to their first postseason victory in three years.
With both players in foul trouble in the second half, Smith finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Morsell equaled his career-high with 18 points to lead Maryland, the East Region’s sixth-seed, to a 79-77 win over 11th-seed and predicted Cinderella Belmont.
“Our B-more guys stepped up today,” said Turgeon, who seemed both elated and relieved when senior forward Dylan Windler’s half-court heave at the final buzzer fell several feet short after a missed free-throw attempt by Morsell with 2.5 seconds left.
The victory propelled the Terps, trying to rebound from a second-round defeat to 13th-seeded Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament, into Saturday’s Round of 32 game against third-seeded LSU, which earlier defeated No. 14 seed Yale, 79-74. Saturday’s game will tip off at 12:10 p.m. on CBS.
It also might have helped take some of the pressure off Turgeon, who had been under mounting criticism for his team’s late-season fades the past three years and its inability to win close games, especially coming from behind.
After cutting what had been a pair of 12-point deficits in half by halftime, Maryland (23-10) started the second half on a 14-0 run but couldn’t sustain its lead as Belmont (26-7) went up 67-60 with 6:59 left.
Asked about the pressure he might have felt personally, Turgeon said: “Pressure because the game is close? Yeah, you get second-guessed pretty good this time of year, so you want to do all the right things.
“But no, I feel so lucky just to be a part of a game like that. You work your whole life to be part of it. Any game you can win in this tournament is great. I'm just proud of my group. We gutted it out. We kept battling.”
If Windler looked like Larry Bird or Gordon Hayward in trying to lead the upstart Bruins to their second victory in three days by scoring 35 points, Smith looked like a former Terp by the same name who happened to be sitting two rows behind the bench.
Just as Joe Smith did 25 years ago as a freshman in leading the Terps to their first Sweet 16 under future Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams, Jalen Smith did it down the stretch, dominating inside as he rarely did throughout an up-and-down first college season.
Twice Smith collected offensive rebounds off missed 3-pointers and scored, first cutting a 64-58 deficit to four points and then a 69-66 deficit to one with a little over five minutes left.
But the biggest play Smith made, perhaps surpassing the game-winning floater he hit to beat Nebraska in early January as the biggest play by any Terp this season, came with 1:43 left. He took a pass from Morsell in the lane and rose over Windler, who fouled Smith as he dunked violently with both hands.
“It helped a lot just building my confidence, knowing that I could grab like pretty much every rebound off the backboard,” Smith said. “That’s what coaches told me and Bruno [Fernando] to do before the game.”
Fernando, who was again double-teamed for most of the game, played with more patience than he did in scoring a season-low three points in the loss to Nebraska, finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
“Jalen and Bruno impacted the game offensively and defensively in the second half,” Morsell said. “It was great to see Jalen impact the game … A good win like this brings you back to the Mount Saint Joe days.”
Asked if what he and Morsell did in helping the Terps get one step closer to getting to the Sweet 16 — with a potential matchup against either Michigan State or Minnesota at Capital One Arena in Washington — reminded him of high school, Smith smiled.
“It brought back some memories of me and him,” said Smith, who recorded his fifth double double and second in the past three games. “It’s college now. We’ve got to leave that all in the past and try to focus on what he can do to help our team win.”
Another tough shooting game for Cowan
Junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who came into the NCAA tournament shooting 18-for-55 overall in the Terps’ past four games, three of them losses, had the worst shooting performance of his career.
Cowan missed his first six shots, went 1-for-9 in the first half and finished 3-for-18 from the field, including 1-for-10 on 3-pointers. It seemed to also affect his free-throw shooting. An 82 percent shooter at the line for the season, Cowan was 2-for-5 on Thursday.
Turgeon chose to look at Cowan’s 6-1 assist-to-turnover ratio — as a team, Maryland committed a season-low five turnovers — and the job he did defensively, especially in the second half, on Belmont guard Kevin McClain, who had 12 of his 19 points in the first half.
“We all believe in Anthony,” Turgeon said. “We think he’s going to make his next one. He made a 3 [on his eighth try to tie the game at 71], we ran a play for him, got another wide open 3 and he missed it.
“That’s how much I believe in him, even though he was probably 3-for-16. It does mean a lot when he plays like that and we beat a really good team. It should give us confidence for the next one.”
Said Cowan: “Obviously I didn’t have my best game. My teammates really picked it up, on the offensive end especially.”
Asked what it showed that the Terps could win a game when he struggled to make a shot, Cowan said: “It shows a lot. We have such a young group. Think about how I did my first game [in the NCAA tournament] and how they’re doing. They really stepped up to the challenge. I think this whole year prepared them for that.”
Maryland is now 11-0 when Smith scores 15 points or more. If the Terps advance to the Sweet 16 and face Minnesota, which will play Michigan State on Saturday in Des Moines, it should bode well since the 6-10 freshman has averaged 20 points and 9.5 rebounds in two wins this season over the Gophers. The matchup isn’t so favorable against the Spartans, who held Smith to six points and three rebounds in a 69-55 win over Maryland on Jan. 21, the only time the teams have met this season.