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Darryl Morsell, the ‘heart and soul’ of Maryland men’s basketball, is leading late-season push

Maryland guard Darryl Morsell shoots against Nebraska during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in College Park, Md. Maryland won 64-50. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Maryland guard Darryl Morsell shoots against Nebraska during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in College Park, Md. Maryland won 64-50. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (Julio Cortez/AP)

Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon admitted he “lost sleep” the night before the Terps’ home game against Michigan State on Feb. 28.

Senior guard Darryl Morsell had barely practiced the week leading up to the game while resting an injured right shoulder that had to be popped back in place twice during the team’s previous game against Rutgers.

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But the Baltimore native told his coach he felt well and quickly proved so, scoring the game’s first five points — including a smooth 3-pointer — as he recorded 11 and helped lead Maryland (15-11, 9-10 Big Ten) to its fifth straight win.

Afterward, Morsell said he understood the magnitude of the game, which led him to suit up despite the injury. But to his teammates and those around him, it was just another example of the leadership and toughness he’s displayed throughout his time in College Park.

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Morsell, who for years has been referred to as a do-it-all “glue guy,” has grown into what Turgeon and teammates say is the “heart and soul” of a Terps team that, up until Wednesday night’s setback at Northwestern, had won five straight games to turn around its season and cement itself as a legitimate NCAA tournament team.

Turgeon has made midseason adjustments as he assessed a roster that lacks a natural post presence or a point guard. But from the beginning of an unorthodox season, it’s been Morsell holding players accountable and setting the tone for their play, whether it be through his intense practice tendencies or attention to detail, specifically on defense. His play on that end of the court has led to a campaign-style effort from his teammates to garner support for him winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

“You always want an extension of you on the floor,” Turgeon said. “Sometimes it’s the point guard, sometimes it’s somebody else. And Darryl’s really an extension of the [coaching] staff on the floor. …

“There’s a reason we’ve gotten better. Because Darryl, he wasn’t looking at 1-5, 2-6, 3-7, 4-9 [the team’s previous conference records]. He was looking at each day making our team better. And then finally it kind of clicked for us to start playing at our best level so far.”

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Like Maryland’s journey this season, Morsell’s senior year hasn’t been one without its share of blows — figurative and literal. An unsuspecting elbow from an opposing player fractured a bone in his face and forced Morsell to miss the second half of a home game against Michigan on New Year’s Eve, an 11-point loss. He sat out just one game after undergoing surgery, a road loss to Indiana, and returned for the following game against Iowa on Jan. 7. Three days later, he played one of his best games of the season, recording a career-high 19 points as Maryland upset Illinois on the road without an injured Eric Ayala.

And against Rutgers on Feb. 21, he fought through shoulder instability that dated to the preseason and scored four points in succession to pull his team away when the Scarlett Knights threatened a comeback late in the second half. Turgeon held Morsell out of the final minutes of the eventual victory as a precaution. “He’s the heart and soul of the team. His energy, it rubs off on everybody,” Ayala said after the game.

“Darryl’s kind of a pop-it-back-in-place type of guy,” said Pat Clatchey, who coached Morsell at Mount Saint Joseph.

Morsell’s resiliency hasn’t come as a surprise either to his father, Duane, who said his son’s toughness was fostered in “tough places” across the Baltimore and Washington basketball youth circuits.

“I wasn’t surprised because he loves to play. He loves to compete,” said Duane, who himself has had to adjust during the pandemic-marred season. Up until this season, Duane and his wife, Carolyn, had attended each of Darryl’s games in college, whether it be home or away. Duane said he’ll relish “the whole experience” of the past four years, from meeting the families of teammates and the coaching staff to speaking with workers at Xfinity Center before tipoff, which he called “like a superstition almost.”

Duane and Carolyn have attended just two games this season, at Clemson and at Penn State, but families will be in attendance at Xfinity Center for Senior Day on Sunday. The Big Ten tournament and NCAA tournament will also admit fans at a limited capacity, and the Morsells plan to be in the stands to cheer on their son and the team.

In an era of college basketball dominated by the “one-and-done” rule and transfers, Morsell is an elder statesman in the very sense of the word. In the second game of a back-to-back with Nebraska in February, he became the 56th player in program history to record 1,000 points. He’s one of three four-year starters, along with Jake Layman and Anthony Cowan Jr., to have been recruited by Turgeon in his 10 years in College Park. And Morsell’s commitment to the program in 2016 marked a seminal point in the early part of Turgeon’s tenure, his first Baltimore recruit to join the program.

“When I signed him, I didn’t think he would be a 1,000-point scorer,” Turgeon said. “I thought he was going to be a great defender, a tough guy. I thought [500] or 600 points but for him to get to 1,000 is amazing. It shows you how hard he’s worked on his 3-point shot, his mid-range. … He’s going to be in the top 10 or 15 or 20 all-time defender, also.”

While Morsell, along with guard Reese Mona and forward Galin Smith, will be recognized for Senior Day ahead of Maryland’s regular-season finale against Penn State, there is the possibility Morsell could return for a fifth year. The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for winter-sport athletes as a response to the pandemic. Turgeon said he hasn’t spoken to Morsell, who is working toward his master’s degree, about his future plans but he would sit down with him after the season ends.

A look into the mind of Morsell’s psyche currently might not give much insight, either. He remains as in the moment as Turgeon said he was when the team fell five games below .500 in conference play. Or when teammate Aaron Wiggins congratulated him for his 1,000th-point accomplishment during a timeout, only to be quickly reminded that the team had a game to finish.

When asked if he’s thought about returning, a sly grin appeared.

“I’m just focused on Penn State right now,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll probably think about it later. Y’all know I’ve thought about it, I’m not even going to lie to y’all. But I’m going to focus on Penn State. I’m not trying to take away from this year or be a distraction to this game or whatever.”

Note: The University of Maryland is now allowing a limited number of family members to attend athletic events, a spokesperson confirmed.

Regular-season finale

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PENN STATE@MARYLAND

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Sunday, 7 p.m.

TV: BTN Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

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