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

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Without junior guard Eric Ayala, the team’s leading scorer, Maryland (7-6, 2-5 B1G) converted clutch baskets down the stretch and picked up pivotal defensive stops in its 66-63 win over No. 12 Illinois (9-4, 5-2 B1G). 

Despite trailing by two at the half and several times in the second half, Maryland remained composed and rallied to an impressive victory. The trio of Darryl Morsell, Donta Scott and Aaron Wiggins guided Maryland’s offense with a combined 47 points, including a career-high 19 from Morsell.

Here are my three takeaways from the victory:

Maryland’s toughness and resilience were on full display:

With 1:21 remaining, Galin Smith reached out his outstretched hand off of Morsell’s missed shot and tipped the ball out, which gave the Terps a second-chance opportunity. Smith’s deflection went right into the hands of Morsell who quickly fired a pocket pass to Hakim Hart. Hart buried the wing three, his only three of the night, which put Maryland on top 62-61 with 1:18 remaining. Hart played 28 minutes and stepped up as a primary ball handler for the Terps with Ayala’s absence.

“It shows a lot, not having [Eric Ayala], it just shows our potential,” Wiggins said of the win. “It shows our toughness, it was a great win for us.”

Smith’s crucial deflection came over 7-foot, 285-pound, Kofi Cockburn who’s one of the premier big men in the conference. At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, Smith battled Cockburn on the low block all night long, fronting him on several possessions in his best minutes as a Terp. Despite his quiet and mild-mannered demeanor, Smith was an instrumental part of Maryland’s victory. He also was one of several Terps who epitomized the toughness that defined the Terps’ victory.

Shortly after, Morsell drove hard baseline around Ayo Dosunmu and finished an extremely tough layup over Cockburn off the window, which extended Maryland’s lead to 64-61 with 38 seconds remaining. That basket was Morsell’s eighth on the night and the most important in his career offensive night. It also represented yet another example of the senior leader’s unrelenting toughness, which has become a staple characteristic of his personality.

All nine players who touched the floor tonight for Maryland elevated their toughness levels in a gritty win that should serve as a confidence-builder moving forward.

“We just battled, and it felt like Maryland basketball out there,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We had a lot of guys who were unbelievably courageous tonight and played with great guts.”

Darryl Morsell is the engine that fuels Maryland basketball:

It’s well documented how valuable Morsell is to the program. However, Sunday’s victory provided just another reminder. In his four seasons in College Park, Morsell has contributed in a variety of ways with clutch shot making, defensive tenacity and invaluable leadership. Tonight, all three shined through at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois, as Morsell’s resurgent performance keyed Maryland’s victory.

“He’s everything, he’s the heart of this team,” Turgeon said of Morsell. “He’s everything for us, hopefully he can continue to lead this team.”

On defense, Morsell was tasked with guarding Dosunmu, who’s not only one of the top guards in the Big Ten, but also nationally. Although Dosunmu finished with 23 points, it took him 23 shots to get to that point in large part due to Morsell’s pestering perimeter defense. Throughout the night, Morsell fought over screens and forced Dosunmu to his left, away from his dominant hand.

“My job today was to just make it as tough as possible for [Ayo] and just win,” Morsell said. “I go out there to win. I’m not worried about stats, numbers, none of that. At the end of the game, I knew the ball was going to be in his hands. I just tried to make it as tough as possible for him and just pull out the win.”

While Morsell’s perimeter defense was stellar, his offensive explosion was arguably more impressive. Wearing a face mask for his second game, Morsell found his groove once again with efficient offense. The senior came out firing in the second half with nine points in the first five minutes on 4-4 shooting. 

He confidently knocked down mid-range and perimeter jumpers, an area where he struggled recently still getting acclimated to the mask. However, Morsell’s most impressive finish came late in the game on the aforementioned layup over Cockburn that helped to give the Terps some insurance down the stretch.

When Morsell is at his best, Maryland is at its best and that was on full display Sunday night.

Maryland didn’t allow their offense to affect their defense:

Throughout this season, Turgeon has echoed the message that it’s imperative for Maryland not to allow poor shooting to affect their defense. The Terps successfully employed that message, particularly down the stretch when they were struggling to score. For 3:50 down the stretch, the Terps went without a basket missing five consecutive field goals unable to convert over the Illini defense.

However, Maryland’s defense remained locked in, limiting Illinois to just two points over that stretch. During that run, the Terps’ defense didn’t allow the Illini to set up inside and forced them to settle for perimeter jumpers. That strategy proved effective as Maryland remained in the game, ultimately converting timely hoops inside the last two minutes. 

Donta Scott came up with a block, Morsell snatched a steal and Smith came up with some contested rebounds during the last five minutes.

Maryland will need to replicate that formula moving forward, as the Terps are at their best when they’re locking down defensively and using that to catalyze their offense.