Darryl Morsell keys Maryland men’s basketball’s 66-63 road upset of No. 12 Illinois

Darryl Morsell rises for a shot during Maryland's 84-71 win over La Salle on Dec. 22, 2020, at Xfinity Center. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Darryl Morsell stood at the wing, a masked marauder of sorts. The clock was winding down. Maryland men’s basketball was up just one. And the Terps were in desperate need of a bucket.

So, they put the ball into their senior guard’s hands. And Morsell delivered, just as he had done all throughout the second half. He jabbed, going past Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu in the process. Then, with Kofi Cockburn looming, Morsell leaned, flicking the ball toward the backboard as he fell to the floor.

It dropped. And Morsell drifted up the floor, a melody of Terps’ cheers humming in the distance.

Morsell’s layup was one of a career-high 19 points for the senior. And led by Morsell’s offensive and defensive exploits, Maryland secured another road upset, beating No. 12 Illinois, 66-63, Sunday night.

“He’s everything,”  coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s the heart of this team, he’s everything for us. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy and hopefully, he can continue to lead this team.”

[A day after Capitol riot, Maryland and Iowa men’s basketball knelt in protest]

With the likes of Cockburn and Dosunmu — two of the Big Ten’s best — leading the way, the Fighting Illini presented an imposing challenge for the Terps. That challenge only grew when guard Eric Ayala was ruled out with a groin injury.

Without their junior leader, the Terps had to delve deeper into their bench, one that has largely struggled to match the production of its competition in conference play.

Yet, Maryland was relatively unfazed by Ayala’s absence in the first half. Donta Scott got the ball rolling early for the Terps, knocking down a pair of jumpers to push Turgeon’s side out in front.

Scott would continue to pace Maryland’s offense throughout. The sophomore forward poured in 11 first-half points — six of which came from beyond the arc. It was a welcome departure from Scott’s 13-point, 5-of-15 showing against No. 5 Iowa on Thursday.

Aaron Wiggins added seven in the opening period as the Terps’ offense did just enough to keep it close. Maryland shot just 34.5 percent in the opening period, the third straight time Turgeon’s squad has failed to break the 40 percent plateau in the first half.

For all of Maryland’s offensive toils in the opening 20, its defense was lively and dynamic. It wasn’t easy — Cockburn was a constant nuisance in the paint for Illinois, drawing double-teams throughout the frame.

It didn’t matter. The sophomore phenom routinely carved out space in the lane, often opting for a soft right-handed hook. Despite the best efforts of Galin Smith and Chol Marial, Cockburn was dominant, racking up 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, 16 of which came in the first.

Despite Cockburn’s success, Turgeon was impressed with the Terps’ efforts in the paint.

“I thought [Smith] played great, I thought Chol gave us great minutes,” Turgeon said. “We needed it.”

Dosunmu was held quiet early, though, shooting just 2-of-11 in the first, a far cry from the 51 percent shooting percentage he carried into Sunday’s game.

“Just make it tough for him,” Morsell said. “He’s a great player…my job today was just make it as tough as possible for him.”

Buoyed by Morsell’s strong defensive effort and Scott’s consistency, the Terps entered halftime down just two. And unlike the Iowa, Indiana and Michigan games, where Maryland kept things close in the first before fading in the second, the Terps’ intensity remained largely intact come the final frame.

[Maryland men’s basketball’s lack of bench depth proved costly against Iowa]

“We believed. I think believing is the biggest thing,” Morsell said. “We all believed coming into this building, even without Eric, that we had enough to get it done.”

Morsell was the standout early, shaking off the rust after a three-point, six-turnover display against the Hawkeyes. The senior guard snuck into the lane off a screen before rising for a mid-range jumper less than a minute into the second.

Two minutes later, he did it again, flashing inside the arc before slotting. Morsell tripled that feat shortly thereafter, knocking down another mid-range jumper before rattling home a three to give Turgeon’s squad a three-point edge. The Baltimore native had 15 second half points to help the Terps’ build up a five-point advantage with 12:06 left.

However, just as Maryland looked poised to put the game away, Dosunmu came to life. The junior began to find space in the lane, darting to the rack with regularity. With his confidence burgeoning, Dosunmu’s jumper became a weapon as well. He knocked in a three-pointer to knot the game at 50. And even as the Terps continued to hang around, Dosunmu kept whetting the twine. He finished with a team-high 23 points for the Fighting Illini.

But Maryland matched every bucket, locked in on every key defensive possession.

“We just battled,” Turgeon said. “It felt like Maryland basketball out there.”

And with 1:18 remaining, Hakim Hart stepped up in Ayala’s absence. After a few difficult possessions, the sophomore corralled a feed from Morsell, just outside the arc. In one smooth motion, the Philadelphia native rose and nailed a three-pointer to give the Terps the lead — an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish. 

Morsell’s layup finished things off for a Maryland squad that hung around with some of the best talent in the conference. After he sunk the shot, the Baltimore native pulled himself up, ran back down the floor, and went back to work on defense, helping seal an unlikely road win — and add another twist to an unpredictable season.

“Tonight, it was a little bit of everything. He was scoring the ball at will, he was rebounding for us, making plays and he was being a leader,” Wiggins said. “When he’s like that, our team is at the peak of our play.”

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