Half court defense, Darryl Morsell and Rebounding: Three takeaways from Maryland’s defensive clinic at Rutgers

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

The past four games have demonstrated that there’s a brand new team donning Maryland’s colors — a team more privy to playing a winning brand of basketball. 

This Maryland (14-10, 8-9 B1G) team traveled to Rutgers (12-9, 8-9 B1G) and contained the Scarlet Knights to under 60 points and an overall ugly offensive showing. The Terps 68-59 victory gives Maryland four straight wins and a newfound dedication to a stronger mindset. 

“I’m just happy for the guys,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We could’ve quit many times this year … and these guys just kept battling and battling.” 

Here are my three takeaways from Maryland’s win at the RAC. 

Maryland’s halfcourt defense was stifling. 

From the start, it was clear that Rutgers was going to have to work for every shot. The Scarlet Knights 6-9 start from the field was mildly concerning as they promptly converted almost every well-guarded shot it took. 

Their luck eventually faded as shooting droughts became more of a norm for the home side. After bursting out to a strong 6-9 start in the opening eight minutes, the Terps allowed just two more field goals to end the half. Rutgers 20-point half was its lowest output all season. 

“Our double teams are better, our rotations are better,” Turgeon said. “We flew around, we have to fly around, we’re giving up a lot [of size].”

For the rest of the contest, Maryland’s pressure was just too overwhelming. The off-ball screens and perimeter sets were almost entirely shut down by Maryland’s guards. The frantic offense that Maryland forced from Rutgers also produced turnovers aplenty, allowing for numerous fast break opportunities. The best example of this came late in the first when Rutgers was rushed into a turnover on a fastbreak. 

Down one with about four minutes left in the half, Ron Harper Jr. grabbed a rebound and was looking to take it coast to coast. When Harper realized the entire defense was focused on him he changed plans mid-layup only to pass out of the shot right into the hands of Eric Ayala, who finished on the other end with his own, proper coast-to-coast layup. 

Maryland’s defense created offense at the RAC in a manner more typical of a Turgeon led team. The 15 turnovers it forced produced 20 points and held Harper, who buried five threes against the Terps in December, to just six points on one made field goal. 

“To be able to score after turnovers is a big step for us,” Turgeon said. “And we keep adding these steps to our team and each step gets a little bit better.”

Darryl Morsell’s incredible display of grit. 

Morsell has taken a beating all season. From his shoulder in December to his facial injury in January and now his same shoulder in Sunday afternoon’s contest, the senior guard has been through injury hell. Even so, through it all he’s still managed to play as the Big Ten’s consummate veteran, team leader and Maryland’s best defender. 

Though Morsell has had storybook moments all throughout this season, perhaps the most significant display of his importance to this program came on Sunday against Rutgers. Morsell was first knocked out of the game after over-extending his arm in an attempt to tip out an offensive board. 

His slightly dislocated shoulder kept him out late in the first half for just three minutes. When Morsell came back, this time fashioned with a shoulder brace, he posted two steals, two assists and seven points before dislocating the same shoulder again with four minutes left in the contest. Morsell was still all smiles as he left for the last time in the contest, knowing his efforts weren’t in vain.

What made his performance special was his momentum changing play minutes before his reinjury. Morsell earned four of his 12 total points in less than 30 seconds of game time. After indirectly forcing a turnover, Morsell took a mismatched Cliff Omoruyi to the rim where he forced the issue and drew a foul for the and-one play. 

The following possession, Maryland forced another turnover that prompted a fast-break that Morsell led and finished with a two-handed slam. His efforts halted Rutgers first significant run of the game and its last real chance to put a dent in Maryland’s double-digit lead. 

“He definitely gonna fight for us,” Ayala said. “He’s the heart and soul of our team, his energy, it rubs off on everybody.” 

Maryland’s rebounding has improved by a mile. 

It seems like the week of Feb. 14 has done wonders for the Terps on both sides of the ball. The unsung improvement for the team, however, comes on the boards where Maryland has regularly been posting 30 a game. 

“It’s key for guys like us to go out there and grab those rebounds,” Ayala said.

Boxing out, proper positioning and the visibly improved effort to finish plays has served Maryland well on the box score. For the most part, whenever the Terps lose, they lose on the boards. And while Maryland’s 32 rebounds weren’t exactly overbearing for the Scarlet Knights, it was a significant improvement from its uglier outings against sides like Indiana and Iowa. Second-chance points are a killer, especially for the undersized teams of Maryland’s ilk. 

Wiggins grabbed a game high 10 boards in the afternoon and Donta Scott wasn’t too far behind with seven of his own. Of course, the rebounding game will never be pretty and Maryland’s small size will rarely ever allow it to nearly out-rebound its much larger Big Ten foes, but it’s clear the Terps have bought into a new vision. 

This vision goes far beyond boxing out and good positioning. It has improved Maryland’s fortunes on the floor, the box score and the win column. Maybe soon it will be throughout the postseason. 

“Guys are buying in,” Turgeon said. “Guys are totally dedicated to what they have to do to be successful.”