Schmuck: Maryland basketball finally figured it out in second half to glide past Navy in Veterans Classic

Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon acknowledged he was starting to wonder.

His team arrived at Alumni Hall on Friday night as a prohibitive favorite to defeat the Midshipmen of Navy, but the Terps certainly didn’t look like one until the final 14 minutes of their 78-57 victory in the fifth annual Veterans Classic.

The Mids had fallen behind in the first half, only to roar back right after intermission and tie the game at 39 about five minutes into the second. So, if you’re the coach of the Big Ten team that struggled to finish against Delaware in your season opener, you’ve got to be wondering just where this thing is headed.

“Was I a little worried? Yeah, because we just continued to not make jump shots,” Turgeon said. “I think Bruno [Fernando] and Stix (Jalen Smith) had three fouls at that juncture, so a little bit concerned. But they showed me a lot. I know a lot more about my team. I’m much more comfortable with my team right now than I was before the night started.”

This is the time of year when everybody is learning about everybody. The Terps (2-0) are learning to play with each other. Turgeon is figuring out just what works and what doesn’t. It’s a process that lasts a lot more than just two nonconference matchups against unimposing opponents, but Friday night turned out to be a big step in the right direction, even if it looked like it might be the opposite for most of the game.

“We started to make a lot of adjustments,” Turgeon said, “but I was just trying to find the right combination.”

Turgeon took a different approach to Navy’s surprisingly tenacious zone defense and his players responded, grinding down the outmanned Midshipmen (0-2) to more than make good on their pregame status as a solid double-digit favorite.

“We couldn’t figure out the zone, so we just spread it out and drove it, because we couldn’t make a shot and we started getting the ball to the basket,’’ Turgeon said. “And we shot a ton of free throws. We shot 27 free throws against the zone, so that means we were really trying to penetrate.”

Anthony Cowan Jr. made it all work, forcing the action inside on the way to a game-high 24 points. He struggled from the 3-point line, hitting just two of nine shots, but was 6-for-6 from inside the arc and 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.

“Anthony was terrific and Darryl [Morsell] had a great second half for us, so that was good to see,’’ Turgeon said.

Morsell did not start the game. Turgeon started freshman guard Eric Ayala in his place in an attempt to drive home a point about Morsell’s shot selection in the season opener. When he got into the flow of the game, Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) delivered a 15-point performance and was a major factor in the second-half surge.

“I think the real thing is how Darryl responded to it,’’ Turgeon said. “That’s really what’s important in this deal. It worked. That’s what I wanted to happen. Darryl and I have had a few heart-to-hearts and we watched some film together, so he responded the right way, which is great.

“Eric’s a really good player for us. I don’t know his numbers. He was getting downhill and making plays and doing things for us so … I felt comfortable with both of them, but I just like how Darryl responded.”

Morsell had come a long way in a couple of hours. He went from being a nonstarter to sitting beside Cowan and Turgeon in the postgame press conference. So, he was there to confirm what his coach just said.

“I just wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do and I wasn’t doing what he wanted me to do,’’ Morsell said. “So, he did what he was supposed to do — coach me and discipline me for not doing what I was supposed to do. He said he felt like I responded well. … Whatever I have to do to win, that’s what I want to do. Whether it’s coming off the bench or starting, I really don’t care. I’m going to roll with Coach Turgeon regardless.”

The Terps didn’t have a lot to gain scheduling Navy on the road, but Turgeon said the benefits transcended what might happen on the basketball court. His players — and those of the other three teams that took part in the Veterans Classic — got to see how the Midshipmen go about their academic and athletic careers before embarking on a career in the Navy.

“It’s been a tremendous trip for us, starting Thursday seeing the colors and being around the students, being on campus and seeing different things — it was a great experience for us,’’ Turgeon said. “I thought my guys worked hard until I was hanging about these students here and what they do to want to serve and be selfless. I think it was a real humbling experience for all of us.”

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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