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Three takeaways from Maryland men’s basketball’s upset over No. 12 Illinois

The Terps had key players step up when needed.

Maryland v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Maryland men’s basketball did it again, knocking off its second ranked team on the road in Big Ten play.

The Terps were able to avoid dropping below .500 on the season and moved to 2-5 in Big Ten play with a wild 66-63 win over No. 12 Illinois Sunday. The win marked the first time since 2014-15 that the program has notched two wins over top-15 teams in the same season, and the first time since 2003-04 that Maryland defeated two ranked teams on the road.

Here are my takeaways from the big win.

Masked Darryl Morsell was a menace on the floor

After an unnatural performance against then-No. 5 Iowa in his first game returning from surgery on a fracture in his face, Darryl Morsell responded and gave the Terps his best.

The senior went for a career-high 19 points, including a big two-point bucket on a baseline cut that was a dagger for Illinois late.

“[Morsell] got tired offensively, he was short on a couple of shots, but that was big time,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “...He’s the heart of this team. He’s everything for us.”

Morsell played 21 minutes off the bench against Iowa in his return, but he found his groove Sunday as starter with 36 minutes on the floor. After a -4 efficiency against Iowa, he had a +16 efficiency in the upset win.

While much of the story throughout this season and heading into Sunday’s contest was about Maryland lacking a post presence inside, another key question this week was how the Terps would matchup against guard Ayo Dosunmu.

Morsell took that challenge head-on and noted that it was his job to make Dosunmu’s night as tough as it could be. While Dosunmu finished with 23 points, he did so shooting 9-of-23 from the field and having to play all 40 minutes.

Maryland certainly has an uncharacteristic makeup with the lack of star-talent, but Morsell has continued to prove his impact on the game.

“[Morsell] was scoring the ball well, he was rebounding for us, making plays and he was being a leader,” Aaron Wiggins said. “When he’s like that, our team is at the peak of our play. And, you know, he’s great for us.”

Maryland was able to work around Ayala’s absence

Point guard Eric Ayala has been the lone experienced leader of the Terrapin offense this season. But Ayala picked up a groin injury against Purdue, according to Turgeon, and it was tweaked again against Iowa. He traveled with the team and was a game time decision, but was unable to go and is day-to-day moving forward.

“I got on him pretty good in film sessions, so he was going to try to force himself to play because he felt like he had to,” Turgeon said. “I was like, ‘If you’re hurt, sit out man. You played your butt off for me for two and a half years, sit out.’”

Ayala, who had started in every game this season, left a hole in the lineup as not only the primary ball-handler, but also a key scoring presence, as he is averaging a team-high 14 points per game.

Turgeon opted to go with no established point guard to start the game Sunday, putting Morsell, Wiggins and Hakim Hart together in the backcourt.

Backup point guard Aquan Smart played just seven minutes in his return to his home state, but the Terps were able to fight without a set No. 1 guard. Having height at the two and three position created mismatches and gave Maryland a chance to compete.

“Throughout the season we’ve been seeing a lot of ups and downs with me going out, Eric not playing. That’s what the whole world is right now with Corona and stuff like that,” Morsell said. “But this team is full of guys that just fight.”

Maryland gets a bit of a break with its next matchup, at home against Nebraska, not coming until Saturday. This will give the team, and Ayala, a chance to rest and recover after three tough games in seven days.

Galin Smith has proved to be important irregardless of the stat sheet

While much has been made this season about Maryland lacking a strong post presence, grad transfer Galin Smith has been able to find a key role at Maryland.

“He’s a quiet guy. He doesn’t talk too much,” Wiggins said of Smith. “But when he talks, he helps our team.”

On Sunday, Smith finished with just two points and added six rebounds, but his play goes well beyond the stat sheet. Smith was the biggest body that Maryland had to throw against center Kofi Cockburn, with Chol Marial also assuming the role of a height matchup.

Late in the game with Maryland nearing four minutes without a field goal, it was Smith who tipped an offensive rebound out over three Illini defenders to Morsell, who kicked it to an open Hart for the game-changing three-point shot.

That play figures to be just one offensive board, but the effort given and IQ of the play meant so much more.

“We have a lot of confidence in Galin,” Turgeon said. “It’s good to see him finally make a little jump hook in the lane there because he works so hard...I’m not sure he ever talks be quite honest with you, unless he’s talking on screens and things like that on the court. He’s a real quiet kid, but he’s all about winning.”

Smith figures to be earning the trust of the team and should see his minutes increase, according to Turgeon, thanks to his knowledge of the offense.

Maryland may be lacking one solid post-player to dominate all facets of the game inside, but Smith figures to be growing into a larger role in Big Ten play.