On one possession in the second half, guard Eric Ayala watched 6-foot-5 senior Darryl Morsell guard 6-foot-11 senior Nate Reuvers from block-to-block, eventually pushing him up to the elbow with unrelenting effort. Despite a 6-inch height disadvantage, Morsell used his toughness battling Reuvers, which prevented him from establishing low post positioning.
That play was emblematic of Morsell’s defensive effort all-night, but also indicative of the fight and toughness that Maryland’s forwards played with as a collective unit. In addition to Morsell, fellow forwards 6-foot-8 Jairus Hamilton and 6-foot-7 Donta Scott battled on the block throughout. Maryland entered Friday night’s contest knowing that the Badgers liked to run many of their offensive sets down low, but the Terps’ persistence and grit down low prevailed.
“Just watching them fight it transcends to the team,” Ayala said. “It makes us want to fight, if they can do it, we can do it too.”
That transcendent fight throughout the team was one of several areas of growth for the Terps in Friday night’s triumphant 70-64 victory. Maryland entered this season without the luxury of a dominant paint presence. Each of the last two seasons, the Terps were fortunate to have that with Bruno Fernando and then Jalen Smith.
In each of the past two games, Maryland has counteracted that size disadvantage with tremendous physicality and determination in the low post. Against Purdue in a tough 73-70 loss on Christmas, Maryland’s interior defense was excellent, limiting the success of 6-foot-10 Trevion Williams and 7-foot-4 Zach Edey.
Understanding that they’re undersized compared to many other Big Ten teams, the Terps recognize the perceived mismatch between their frontcourt players and the opponents’. However, that awareness also brings something else.
It welcomes an added appreciation for the way Maryland’s frontcourt players are battling in the paint each possession, in spite of their size disadvantage. In addition to that added appreciation, it also brings a heightened energy level for the Terps as a collective unit defensively.
“I think it’s kind of contagious the energy, the hard work, the effort that everyone is putting in,” Aaron Wiggins said. “I think it kind of boosts our level of energy just because we know those guys are working as hard as they can, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to contain our matchups. It has a huge effect on us.”
Maryland’s ascending interior defense is representative of another area where the Terps have grown with each game– their toughness. After losing at home to then No. 19 Rutgers to start conference play, head coach Mark Turgeon said his team needed to get tougher playing in the talented Big Ten Conference. Over the past two games, the Terps have answered Turgeon’s emphasis for increased toughness in a resounding way.
“Where we’ve improved the most is toughness,” Turgeon said. I thought we got out toughed against Rutgers at home and just didn’t compete. “We’ve really changed that since that game. We’re much much tougher. We played two physical well-coached teams on the road here and we held our own, giving up a lot of size.”
Not only has Maryland’s physical toughness heightened in large part due to its physical post defense, but the Terps mental toughness is evolving as well. After missing 11 consecutive shots over a seven-minute stretch, Maryland didn’t flinch and continued to play within themselves and with confidence. The Terps executed in late-game situations, maintaining consistent belief that they’d win throughout.
“That’s really where we’ve come the furthest just our toughness and the mentality that we’re a good basketball team,” Turgeon said. “That’s where we’ve really changed the most just our toughness mentally and our toughness physically.”
Maryland’s improvement with its physical toughness was also evident in the way it attacked the basket with two highlight poster dunks against the Badgers. Both Scott and Morsell rocked the rim at the Kohl Center soaring over Badger defenders for fiery dunks that energized both Maryland’s bench and the coaching staff.
With three of their next four games against ranked opponents, the continued evolution of the Terps mental and physical toughness will be pivotal for their success moving forward.