ORLANDO — Maryland men’s basketball forward Jalen Smith had just swatted away a Marquette shot for the third time, grabbing the rebound before being knocked to the ground.
When the referee blew his whistle for the foul, the sophomore let out an emphatic yell while guard Darryl Morsell pumped his fist and the Terps’ bench applauded the defensive effort in the opening 10 minutes.
The hounding defensive effort was the catalyst for a rare fast start that No. 5 Maryland used to stake a 42-21 lead en route to an 84-63 win over the Golden Eagles, claiming the Orlando Invitational championship on Sunday. The dominant showing gave the Terps an 8-0 start to the season for the first time since 2006.
“I’ve been waiting for that. More of a complete game out of us. It all started on the defensive end,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “Our defense was terrific.”
[Read more: Maryland basketball hopes Darryl Morsell’s defense can answer Markus Howard’s efficiency]
Marquette (5-2) controlled the opening tip and, as expected, Morsell stepped up to defend the Golden Eagles’ dynamic guard Markus Howard — who entered the game as the nation’s leading scorer at 29.3 points per game.
Following a stop on the defensive end, Morsell stepped into a three on the Terps’ first possession to open the scoring.
Morsell’s 3-pointer was part of Maryland’s newfound success in the opening stages of a game. Before Sunday’s outing, Turgeon’s team had floundered at the start of games, oftentimes finding itself with early deficits to climb out of.
But against the Golden Eagles, the Terps’ found their rhythm in the first half. Also capitalizing off a harassing and dominant defensive effort, Maryland broke off a 22-6 run to turn an 11-11 tie into a 33-17 lead with three and a half minutes to play.
“We was able to get stops early,” guard Anthony Cowan said. “That really allowed us to run a little bit. And then that really carried us through the whole game. We started getting consecutive stops, we saw the ball go in the basket a little bit — I think that really jumpstarted us.”
Though its offense was efficient, Maryland opened up its 42-21 halftime lead on the strength of its defense, with Marquette committing 11 turnovers in the face of heavy pressure. Part of that effort included Morsell, Cowan and guard Aaron Wiggins combining to hold Howard to two points on 1-for-6 shooting, two days after the guard poured in 51 against USC.
“Darryl set the tone,” Turgeon said. “But a lot of guys did a good job of guarding that kid — we switched a lot of screens. So Aaron Wiggins was terrific on him, Anthony Cowan was terrific on him, Donta Scott was terrific when he switched out on him.”
[Read more: In two comeback wins, Anthony Cowan was Maryland basketball’s unquestioned leader]
Howard picked up his third personal foul 49 seconds into the second half, forcing the star guard to the bench.
Morsell had a chance to give Maryland its largest lead at 26 points, but he missed an open layup. Marquette saw its opportunity to strike, seizing the moment with a 12-2 run to climb back within 13 points.
When the Terps came up the floor for the next possession, Ayala brought the ball across half court. Cowan stood beyond the three-point line and turned to glance at the scoreboard, seeing the whittled-down advantage.
As he did in the first two games in Orlando, Cowan took over — this time only briefly. It started when he bailed out a bad possession against a zone with a deep three.
“That was our worst zone offensive possession, and Anthony made the shot,” Turgeon said. “I mean we had wide-open looks and couldn’t make them. And then we have a terrible possession, and Anthony makes it. That’s kinda how the game works sometimes.”
Cowan — who was named the tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 24 points per game over the three wins -— then nabbed a steal that led to Scott’s transition layup to steady the Terps amid the pressure.
“We kinda knew they was going to make a run,” Cowan said. “That really slowed it down a little bit.”
Howard’s first-half struggles persisted to the final 20 minutes, forcing his teammates to take on a higher scoring load. Forward Brendan Bailey, who entered the game averaging just over four points, exploded for 27 points, using 7-for-12 shooting from deep to keep Marquette close.
But each time the Golden Eagles crept within striking distance, the Terps had the answer, especially after diagnosing the zone defense.
Morsell found pockets in the zone to help close the victory and finish with a double-double (17 points and 10 rebounds). Fans chanted the junior’s name after the final buzzer signaled the Terps’ championship, as his defense helped hold Howard to six points on 1-for-12 shooting after Marquette’s leader averaged 45.5 in the first two games in Orlando.
“My goal was just to make it tough for him. I knew what he was capable of coming into the game with his other two outings in this tournament,” Morsell said. “Contest every shot, just try to use my size, use my length — just try to get physical with him. But it was a complete team effort.”