A strong start, an equally strong defense and more Darryl Morsell: Three takeaways from Maryland’s fifth straight win

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athetics.)

For Maryland (15-10, 9-9 B1G), this year’s path to the NCAA tournament has been far from ideal. But so has Michigan State’s (13-10, 7-10 B1G); a team who’s identity also revolves around pestering lengthy defenders and a scoring attack led by a crafty two-way wing.

The two sides share plenty of commonalities but only one managed to earn the true reward of leaving with the victory.

That honor was granted to the Terps, who played their best Big Ten game at XFINITY Center so far this season. The 73-55 win basically solidifies Maryland’s tournament berth and furthers the Terps big time late season surge — a timely push that could potentially extend to postseason play. 

“They were dialed in yesterday at practice, you could see it coming,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Our defense was terrific, they were dialed into the personnel and who we had to guard and how we had to guard”

Here are my three takeaways from the win. 

A strong Maryland start got the ball rolling. 

An 11-0 start thrusted the Terps into a comfortable position that barely wavered throughout the entire contest. Indeed, the Terps 11 unanswered points in the game’s first four minutes set the tone for the dominant 36 minutes that would follow. 

“In past years and even past games we kinda took a while to get settled in,” Eric Ayala said, “Tonight we jumped right on it from the beginning — that was key for us.” 

Aided by the defense, Maryland’s back-breaking run included three made threes and a pair of free throws from Darryl Morsell. The set pieces that put pressure on Michigan State’s defense were particularly quick. With each set three-point play taking just five seconds as soon as the Terps passed half court, it ensured almost no time for the Spartan defense to settle and create for themselves. 

The final dagger of the 11-0 run was Aaron Wiggins three from the left corner. The simple, yet effective half court set got Wiggins free in seconds. With Gabe Brown at his hip, the junior guard briskly shed off his man utilizing a pair of subsequent off-ball screens set by Donta Scott and Hakim Hart. 

And with Brown nearly two feet away, Wiggins was wide open from range and drained his first three of the game. Down 11, the Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo had no choice but to regroup with a timeout. And in spite of a few lulls on offense, it was smooth sailing from there for the Terrapins. They led for the entirety of the contest and finished with a 50% billing from three and 49% from the field along with a near perfect 23-24 mark from the charity stripe. 

Knowing Michigan State lacks the firepower to properly stage a comeback or assert themselves offensively, Maryland opted to deal the first blow — a hit that took the Spartans out in just four minutes. 

“[The 11-0 start] was pretty big because Michigan State’s a team that loves to come out and fight,” guard Hakim Hart said. “We just had to punch them in the face first.” 

The defensive essence of Maryland basketball. 

Sunday afternoon was an indication that Maryland’s hounding defense is here to stay. Michigan State’s defense was held to a sub-40 field goal percentage for the bulk of the game and compounded the ugly with a 27% rate from three. 

Maryland’s rugged defense was largely fueled by a game plan that silenced Aaron Henry and forced a more concerted performance from the Spartan role-players. 

It also clogged the lane and led the Spartans to resort to chuck up threes on countless possessions. Michigan State’s offense was funneled into a position that it was completely unfamiliar with due to Maryland’s defensive approach — resulting in less than favorable outcomes for the visiting team. 

“Our defense was shot out of a cannon at the start of the game,” Turgeon said. “We were really good defensively for probably around 36 minutes today.”

Outside of Henry and Josh Langford, who led the offensive charge for the Spartans with double-digit scoring outputs on 23 combined points on seven combined field goals, the rest of the roster managed to muster just 32 points while going 12-28 from the field. 

In several moments, when Henry took matters into his own hands, he was often met by a double team — or Morsell — which either led him to commit a turnover or saw him brick a contested jumper. Henry, the man who averaged 21 points for the Spartans in their fiery three-game streak, was reduced to an 11 point performance — his worst scoring output since January. 

This performance marks the fourth time Maryland has held their opponents to under 60 points and the third time they’ve contained the opponent’s best scorer well below their average in the past two weeks.  

“We put our hard hat on [on] the defensive end,” Ayala said. “That’s what we count on going into games.” 

Darryl Morsell hasn’t lost a step. 

Morsell’s 11 points were crucial to the Terps Sunday win. His shoulder injury left him out of practice for the entire week, meaning his availability had to be determined just minutes before the tip-off. He, of course, got the call to start and still produced at a high level despite spending the majority of his week resting. 

First, to put all of the shoulder discussion to bed, Morsell swished a three to open up the contest and went on to primarily guard Henry for the better part of his 34 minutes on the court. Morsell posted the first five points of Maryland’s opening 11-0 run and went on to produce an efficient 11 points (4-5 from the field) for the afternoon. 

His points, as usual, consisted of turnaround jumpers and the like, were one part of his complete performance that also included three rebounds and three assists. Without him, it’s hard to tell whether or not the Terps would be able to pull off the victory with such ease. Morsell’s energy is unmatched — even when he’s not 100%. 

“Anything we doing I know Darryl gonna be ready,” Ayala said. “He’s so special. I knew we needed him to be on the floor to win the game.”