JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The weight of not winning a postseason game had hung over the Maryland Terrapins for the last couple of years. The program had lost its previous five Big Ten and NCAA tournament games, a thought that raced through Anthony Cowan Jr.'s mind Thursday during the team’s first-round matchup against Belmont.
Maryland barely held off the Bruins, 79-77, snapping the drought that fueled criticism of the program and Coach Mark Turgeon. Cowan, the only upperclassman in Maryland’s rotation, said the win was a “huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
After Cowan, who struggled on offense all afternoon, missed a jumper with 29 seconds left in the game, Maryland gave Belmont the ball with the Terrapins leading by one.
As Belmont let the game clock tick closer to zero, Maryland’s Darryl Morsell looked toward his team’s bench and heard everyone screaming, “Backdoor! Backdoor!”
He was ready for the pass by Grayson Murphy, which was tipped by Maryland freshman Eric Ayala to set up Morsell’s steal.
Belmont fouled Morsell with two seconds on the clock, sending the sophomore guard who had never played in the NCAA tournament to the free throw line with a chance to extend Maryland’s lead.
“It’s something I dreamed about as a kid,” Morsell said. “To be in March Madness. I don’t know. The ball in my hands. I have an opportunity to win a March Madness game.”
He made one of two free throws before Belmont’s desperation attempt to win at the buzzer failed. No. 6 seed Maryland (23-10) will advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament and face LSU (27-6) on Saturday in Jacksonville. The third-seeded Tigers fought off No. 14 Yale, 79-74, earlier in the day.
The Terps came into this game just off a demoralizing loss in the Big Ten tournament against a Nebraska team seeded 13th in the conference, and this first-round matchup became a popular upset pick among some experts.
“Every single fan, everybody watching us, consistently just tries to bring us down, telling us, ‘Oh, they’re going to lose. They haven’t had a postseason win in forever,’ ” freshman Aaron Wiggins said. “But we were able to get one tonight, and it’s an awesome feeling.”
The first half, however, extended the malaise for the Terps, who had lost three of their previous four games. Maryland went into halftime trailing 40-34. In the locker room, Wiggins said, assistant coach Bino Ranson told the team, “You’ve got to have the will to win.”
By the time the players returned from the locker room, they suddenly looked like they weren’t quite ready for the season to end. The Terrapins hit shots, played excellent defense and opened the second half on a 14-0 run. But after that stretch, Belmont continued to respond until the end of the game. Neither team led by more than four points during the final six minutes of play.
“I told the guys, just an honor and a privilege to be a part of a game like that this time of a year," Turgeon said, “and to come out on top makes it real special.”
Morsell, who scored 18 points, and his high school teammate Jalen Smith helped carry the Terps. Smith, the freshman forward from Baltimore, finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Late in the game, he pushed the Terps’ lead to three with a dunk that came just after a chaotic few moments when players from both sides dived onto the floor for a loose ball. Smith’s dunk, off a pass from Morsell, “gave us a lot of momentum and energy,” Wiggins said.
Bruno Fernando recorded 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Ayala (12 points) also finished in double figures for Maryland.
Before Thursday, Belmont ranked second in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 87.2 points. In Jacksonville, the Terps couldn’t contain Belmont’s leading scorers on the season, Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain. Windler led the Bruins (27-6) on Thursday with 35 points and 11 rebounds and McClain scored 19.
Belmont arrived in Jacksonville after winning its play-in game Tuesday night against Temple in Dayton, Ohio. The Bruins didn’t arrive until around 4 a.m. Wednesday and at a news conference later that afternoon, center Nick Muszynski said he hadn’t watched film on Maryland yet.
But even with tired bodies and little time to prepare, the Bruins hung with the Terps the entire game.
Maryland trailed by 12 points in the first half but went on a 9-0 run late in the half and were down six heading into the locker room.
After halftime, Cowan said the team focused on defense, Maryland’s identity this season. Offensively, “We just tried to do everything we could, man,” Fernando said. “We ran sets. We did everything. We got transition buckets.”
Early in the second half, Smith lifted his arms and chest-bumped Fernando, who then headed to the foul line, hit a free throw and handed Maryland its first advantage since early in the game. Ayala then hit a three-pointer, which extended Maryland’s lead and forced Belmont to take a timeout.
The game seemed to swing into the Terrapins’ favor, but Belmont retook the lead with a three-pointer from Windler soon after. Maryland responded with a 6-0 run, setting the tone for the back-and-forth end to the game.
“Crazy moment to be a part of,” Wiggins said. “Playing in such an intense game all the way down to the last second. Every single play counted.”
Cowan hit just one of his nine shots and didn’t hit a three-pointer until late in the second half, when he tied the game with 4:07 to go in the game on his ninth attempt from behind the arc. He finished with nine points on 3-for-18 shooting from the field, but added six assists and four rebounds against one turnover.
Wiggins said when the team came into the locker room after the game, Cowan mentioned how this was his first postseason win, the streak everyone knew about but one that Cowan and his coach will no longer have to carry.
“Me and Coach Turgeon are in it together,” Cowan said. “Both of us have been getting a lot of different crazy things said about us. For us to come together and finally get one, it’s a really good feeling.”