If not for being a rare sophomore on the youngest Maryland men’s basketball team in recent memory, guard Darryl Morsell might have lost his starting spot this season.
The Terps’ defensive stopper struggled for patches throughout the year, not delivering the defensive intensity required of him early and owning a turnover rate more befitting of a primary ballhandler than of a team’s sixth- or seventh-best scoring threat.
But with so little experience behind him, Morsell stayed on the floor despite his sophomore growing pains, save for a one-game benching from coach Mark Turgeon in the second game of the year. And now, the Terps are reaping the benefits of having the Baltimore native on the court.
Morsell’s defense has returned after an early blip, and following a disastrous three-game skid late in the regular season, he’s embarked on an offensive resurgence in his last four contests, culminating with his 18-point, zero-turnover performance Thursday in the NCAA tournament first round against Belmont.
“I’m a sophomore, but I’m one of the older guys on the court most of the time,” Morsell said. “So rather than just leading with my voice, [Turgeon] wanted me to lead more by example, which I kind of focus in on [by] protecting the ball, trying to defend as best I can.”
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Turgeon, though, said Morsell didn’t fully understand his role until after the team’s blowout loss to Penn State in late February.
Twice in the first five possessions against the Nittany Lions, Morsell tried to force a pass through the defense. Both times, they were easily picked off and turned into 3-pointers on the other end. For the third time in a four-game stretch, Morsell finished with four turnovers.
“Lucky for him, we’re a young team. So he was able to keep his spot through a lot of those mistakes,” Turgeon said. “But he had total buy-in after the Penn State game.”
In the four games since, Morsell has committed just one giveaway, while averaging more than three assists. He said he’s stopped “trying to make the home-run play.”
[Read more: After Maryland basketball’s win over Belmont, Mark Turgeon can breathe easier]
Most of the time, just keeping it simple and avoiding disaster on offense is enough for Morsell. He earned a starting spot as a freshman due to his defense, and other than an uncharacteristically lackadaisical start to the season earned him a demotion from the starting lineup against Navy on Nov. 9, it’s rarely wavered.
Right around the time of the Penn State loss in late February, Turgeon reaffirmed to the team that Morsell would be guarding the opponent’s best player each game.
“He does all the little things, the dirty things,” Turgeon said. “He’s not a superstar, but he really helps our team go.”
Against Belmont, though, with Bruins forward Dylan Windler scoring 35 points — even with close defense from Morsell — and Maryland guards Anthony Cowan and Eric Ayala shooting a combined 8-for-31, the Terps needed Morsell to score.
He delivered by matching his career-high of 18 points, shooting 6-for-10 from the field and getting to the line seven times. With the Terps trailing by four late in the second half, Morsell — whose three-point mark has jumped from 12 percent as a freshman to 29 percent this year — buried a 3-pointer in transition.
“It helped my confidence moving forward, but [my teammates] also gave me confidence,” Morsell said. “At the beginning of the game, I was missing some layups and stuff. Defensively, I was struggling against [Windler]. But these guys kept me confident, and it helped me.”
It’s a narrative similar to the one Morsell went through this entire season, battling through rough patches to remain one of the team’s key pieces, and one that suddenly seems capable of stepping into more of a featured role when necessary.
“We all know Darryl is a great defensive player,” forward Bruno Fernando said, “so to see him have success on the offensive end of the floor, it’s huge for us. It shows we have a lot of tools on our team. Teams are going to have a really tough time guarding us.”