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Maryland men’s basketball is trying toughen up before return to Big Ten play

The Terps made physicality on both ends of the floor an emphasis this week, and it showed against La Salle.

NCAA Basketball: La Salle at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Following back-to-back losses to Clemson and No. 11 Rutgers, Maryland men’s basketball head coach Mark Turgeon realized his team was lacking in one of the game’s most crucial areas.

That something was toughness, a mentality that’s often been a constant both with past and present players under Turgeon, but had not translated to the floor so far this season.

“We’ve got to be a lot tougher than we were against Rutgers,” Turgeon said on Monday. “And we worked a lot on that, just trying to be a little bit tougher basketball team. When we get tired and things get tough, we’ve just got to fight through it.”

That sentiment was shared by the rest of the team as well, recognizing that the level of physicality it lacked during its two-game skid was in desperate need of improvement. And no player on this year’s Terps roster takes more pride in playing with toughness than Darryl Morsell, the senior guard who has willingly gone toe to toe with some of the Big Ten’s most talented offensive players since he first arrived in College Park.

“Toughness is more mental than physical,” Morsell said on Monday. “As a leader, I’m just trying to work on every day talking to everybody so that everybody have the same mentality to be the tougher team, to beat the tougher player.”

Returning to action for the first time in eight games since its humbling at the hands of the Scarlet Knights, Morsell and the Terps stepped onto the floor against La Salle Tuesday looking to bring that edge that would get them back to their winning ways.

Maryland’s defense immediately set the tone against the Explorers within the game’s opening exchanges. Turgeon threw a multitude of different zone and man-to-man looks at La Salle’s offense, stifling the opponent on the perimeter to keep the Explorers from developing any consistent offensive flow.

The defense held La Salle under 10 points until the 11:22 mark of the first half, forcing its opponent into a 4-for-13 shooting start from the field as well. The Terps also forced six first half turnovers, including a steal and slam by junior guard Aaron Wiggins, to give Maryland seven points off turnovers and a 15-point lead going into the halftime break.

“We started talking, we just needed to pick up our defense,” sophomore forward Donta Scott said. So we picked up our defense, and then once we did that it wasn’t too hard for our offense to get started.”

But as La Salle’s stable of capable scorers began to find their groove, it fell upon the team’s offense to carry over the same toughness to the other end of the floor.

Maryland’s offense has been plagued by poor shooting as of late, with its two sub-40% shooting performances in its two losses dropping its average below 50% for the first time this season.

A significant contributor to that decline has been the drought that many of the team’s outside shooters have endured over the last few games, with the likes of Morsell, Wiggins and Eric Ayala combining to shoot just 2-for-26 (7%) from beyond the arc in the last three contests heading into Tuesday.

With shots from the outside continuing to miss the mark, Maryland’s trio of guards began to challenge La Salle at the rim, which is easier said than done when defenses don’t have to respect the outside shot as much.

However, the Terps’ aggressive mindset on both ends of the floor allowed them to challenge the Explorers at the rim with consistent success, whether it was finishing through contact or getting to the free throw line.

The primary initiator of the attack on the rim was Ayala, who capably took defenders off the dribble all game long while showing no hesitation in meeting defenders in the air and finishing through contact.

Ayala finished as the game’s leading scorer, notching a career-high 23 points in the victory. He also made the Explorers pay at the free throw line, going 13-for-15 from the charity stripe to bring his season free throw percentage to 91%, which ranks 42nd in the nation.

“Two free throws could take a six point swing to eight,” Ayala said. “Those free throws, not just mine, but the whole team, we count on those, we practice those a lot. They’re big for us.”

The Terps’ onslaught on the rim continued throughout the second half, racking up 44 points in the paint to punctuated by a thunderous put-back dunk by sophomore forward Donta Scott, which was named SportsCenter’s top play of the day.

Though Maryland’s uptick in toughness was a nice return to form for a team that’s endured its share of struggles on both ends of the floor, the most important part will be sustaining it. The Terps have just a two day layoff before getting back into Big Ten play when they hit the road to play Purdue on Christmas Day.

It’s not often that teams in a competitive conference like the Big Ten can produce 7-for-28 (25%) three-point shooting performances like Maryland did on Tuesday night and still come out on top, so Morsell and the Terps’ other leaders will need to continue to emphasize this level of intensity and toughness to keep pace with the stronger competition on the horizon.

“We held it down in the second half,” Wiggins said. “I think we’re pretty tough.”