Around three years ago, Maryland basketball’s Jalen Smith and Darryl Morsell were watching March Madness games on an iPad in between classes at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore. As basketball players, they of course loved the event and would sneak it into their day whenever they could.
Last week, the pair found themselves playing in the NCAA Tournament together in Jacksonville. And they dominated.
On Thursday, they combined for 37 of Maryland’s 79 points in a win over Belmont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Smith had 19 points, 12 rebounds and a poster dunk in the final minutes. Morsell scored 18 and came up with the steal that ultimately secured the game on Belmont’s final possession.
“Our B-more guys stepped up today,” head coach Mark Turgeon said after the win. “They were terrific.”
While he had an up-and-down freshman season at times, this type of scoring was expected from Smith. He was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and the No. 10-ranked player in his class. But for Morsell, the Belmont game marked a new career high. He started to find his footing as a big piece of the Terps’ offense since the end of February. He averaged 8.1 points per game for the season, but that number jumped to 11.2 in seven games since Feb. 23.
“Playing with him in high school, I always knew Darryl could play like that,” Smith said. “And I knew it was just a matter of time before he was going to come out ... when it mattered, he did it.”
Smith said Morsell is always on point during practice. Assistant coach Bino Ranson pulled Morsell aside leading up to the tournament and told him the team needed him to play like he had been practicing if they wanted to make it far. That, combined with his teammates hyping him up in practice, gave Morsell the confidence he needed to nail down shots on such a big stage, and keep coming for more.
“It’s all in confidence,” Morsell said. “My teammates have been real confident in me, so just them having confidence in me rubs off on me, and when I see an opportunity to make a play, I just try to do that.”
The pair carried over their strong play into Saturday’s game against LSU, but it didn’t end as they would have hoped. Instead of the duo celebrating a trip to the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C., this coming weekend, Smith fell to the floor in tears after LSU’s Tremont Waters nailed a layup over him in the final seconds to rob the Terps of a comeback victory.
“Keep your head up,” Morsell told his longtime friend after the game, reminding him that he “played his tail off” despite the crushing defeat.
”Jalen is so hard on himself,” Morsell said in the locker room. “He’s going to blame it on himself for a little while, but he can’t. ... He did all he could do, he played his heart out.”
Both said the loss hurt way more than any high school game they lost together, including when their team lost both the Baltimore Catholic League and MIAA title games in 2016.
But Maryland even having a chance on the last play wouldn’t have been possible without the play of Smith and Morsell that helped Maryland come back from 15 down. Smith finished the game with 15 points, eight rebounds and five blocks, and drilled a three-pointer in the final minute to tie the game back up. Morsell contributed 10 points, five rebounds and two assists.
Both performances showed that if Smith decides to return to College Park next season, the two could be a dangerous pair.
“It’s just great to get a win with somebody like him,” Morsell said after the Belmont game. “I know all the work he’s put in and he knows all the work I’ve put in, so it’s just great to see us both have success on this level, and hopefully it can continue.”