JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The NCAA Tournament can be boiled down to one phrase from legendary NC State coach Jim Valvano: “Survive and advance.” When Eric Ayala tipped a Grayson Murphy pass that ended up in Darryl Morsell’s hands with four seconds left, the Terps brought Valvano’s saying to life, holding off Belmont for a 79-77 win.
The game was a classic NCAA Tournament first-round game. It featured nine lead changes, four ties and multiple runs, with neither team giving in. Maryland moved on in the end thanks to huge performances from Jalen Smith, Darryl Morsell and Bruno Fernando and a season-low five turnovers.
Here’s what stood out from the nail-biting win.
Maryland had no answer for Dylan Windler.
The Terps could’ve been better on a few plays against the best player from the Ohio Valley Conference not named Ja Morant, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered. After scoring just five points against Temple, Windler was dialed in, scoring a game-high 35.
“I just try to keep my eye on the rim and look at every shot as if you’re open,” Windler said after the game. “If to not focus on the defender too much, you’re always open if you’re just looking at the rim. I can usually get my shot off pretty well—I’ve got a pretty good, high release—so I just tried to keep shooting when I was open.”
Windler missed his first two shots of the game, and then was nearly unstoppable after that. He hit four threes in the first half and kept it going after the break, including a ridiculous step-back trey to push Belmont’s lead to seven with 6:58 to go. When he wasn’t scoring, he was tossing alley-oops, including a big one to Seth Adelsperger to retake the lead with 11:26 left.
Even though he missed a halfcourt heave as time expired, Windler’s 35 points were the most scored against Maryland since Virginia’s Mike Scott scored the same amount in 2012.
Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando made the difference.
Even as Maryland struggled in the first half, it was clear the Terps had an advantage inside. Maryland put a priority on attacking the basket to start the second half, with Belmont having no answer for Fernando. The sophomore powered the Terps 14-0 run to start the half, and the pressure to stop him inside led to a three from Ayala that punctuated the run. Fernando finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and two ferocious blocks, showing why he’ll be a likely first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft.
“He’s athletic, he’s strong, he’s the whole package,” Belmont redshirt freshman center Nick Muszynski said. “He’s one of those guys you have to be locked in on at all times. If you stand up, he’s whipping you and your cooked and he’s putting you under the rim.”
While Fernando dominated the early minutes of the half, Smith took over late. Ayala said the team always jokes around in the locker room about which one of them will let their “dogs” out, and Thursday was Smith’s turn. The freshman got some plays early and was a monster down the stretch, finishing with 19 points and 12 rebounds on 8-for-9 shooting.
“I don’t think we ran a single play for him,” sophomore guard Darryl Morsell said. “He just dominated the glass offensively and made plays. It was great to see because I know how much work he puts in.”
He scored nine points in the first half, but didn’t score in the second half until there was 7:02 left in the game. With 1:41 remaining, his slam dunk off a fight for a loose ball nearly blew the rim off Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena. The Terps are now 11-0 in games where the freshman scores 15 points or more, and will need another big performance from him if they want to advance to the Sweet 16.
Darryl Morsell continues to impress.
Morsell’s lack of offense made him a lightning rod for fans early in the season, as he stayed on the floor for his performance on the defensive end. But in the last six contests, he’s taken his game to another level, scoring in double figures in five and recording only one turnover in his last four outings.
The up-tempo game suited the sophomore’s style of play, as did Belmont’s struggle to contain Maryland off the dribble. He matched his career high with 18 points, and like his high school teammate Jalen Smith, Morsell made plays when the Terps needed them. A three with 5:37 cut the Bruins’ lead to one, then he slashed through the lane for a layup and was fouled with 2:49 to go. He finished the three-point play, giving Maryland a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“I’m just trying to be more aggressive,” Morsell said. “When I’m aggressive and getting downhill, this team is better, so I’m just trying to find a way to make plays in transition and make plays when they double Bruno. Right now it’s win or go home, so I’m trying to make plays and lay it all out there on the floor.”
With Anthony Cowan Jr. mired in his worst shooting day of the season—3-of-18 from the floor, 1-of-10 from deep and even 2-of-5 from the line—Morsell was the boost Maryland needed.