Maryland freshman Darryl Morsell has heard the sneering whispers about his shaky jump shot through the first two months of his college career, but those voices were much more audible during the first half of Tuesday night's game against Penn State.
Morsell noticed the loud groans at Xfinity Center after he air balled two three-pointers, the second of which sailed over the rim by about two feet and left the first-year guard looking a little embarrassed.
But Morsell has also been lauded for his Baltimore toughness, and he showed much more of it mentally than physically in a 75-69 win over the Nittany Lions. With his team trailing by three with 4:36 remaining, Morsell nailed a crucial three-pointer in front of his bench, then grabbed a critical rebound on the ensuing possession that led to a go-ahead dunk by senior Michal Cekovsky.
"I'm a very confident individual," Morsell said. "I just set my feet and let it go. It's something I do all the time."
On a night in which Maryland (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) was led by 18 points from sophomore Anthony Cowan Jr. and 17 points and 11 rebounds from freshman Bruno Fernando, those performances wouldn't have been enough to beat the upstart Nittany Lions (11-5, 1-2).
The Terrapins needed 10 points and six boards from Cekovsky, who is helping anchor a frontcourt that has lost Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender to season-ending injuries, but it also needed resurgent second-half performances from Kevin Huerter (13 points) and Morsell, who finished with just nine points on 2-for-10 shooting but made several crucial plays down the stretch.
"He hit the big one. That was a big one in the corner," Penn State Coach Pat Chambers said. "It takes a lot of guts to take that shot."
The Terrapins also took advantage of a huge disparity in free throws, making 23 of 34 from the line while the Nittany Lions went just 2 for 4.
Cowan played every minute and was the only reliable scorer in the backcourt. He mixed in midrange jumpers with circus finishes at the rim, but the rest of Maryland's guards had no rhythm. Huerter took just one shot in the first half and went back and forth to the bench after he picked up two fouls within the first four minutes.
Penn State dared Morsell to shoot from outside — it looked much like the defensive game plan deployed by Purdue in the Big Ten opener last month, when Morsell shot just 3 for 16 from the field — and it worked again on this night. Morsell went 0 for 6 in the first half, while veterans Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens went a combined 1 for 3 and looked hesitant to shoot.
So Maryland relied mostly on Cowan, Fernando and Cekovsky on the offensive end, and despite giving up three three-pointers in the final 2:15 of the half, the Terrapins were fortunate to only be down 34-30 as they walked to the locker room.
Fernando started the second half with a finish at the rim and a pull-up jumper to tie the score at 37. Cowan added a pair of three-pointers within the first six minutes of the half, and Cekovsky pulled Maryland to within 44-43 on a dunk through contact with just over 14 minutes remaining.
But not only did Maryland struggle to keep Penn State guard Tony Carr (16 points, eight assists) in check, but its frontcourt limitations were most obvious against Nittany Lions center Mike Watkins. The redshirt sophomore finished with 17 points and 17 rebounds, giving Fernando and Cekovsky fits all evening with his length and physicality. Those two players only started practicing together for the first time two days ago, and Jackson and Bender put in extra time to help Cekovsky learn the principles of playing the power forward position during those sessions.
"They were trying to help me and teach me, because I haven't played that position for a while," Cekovsky said. "I think it just gives us so much more length, especially against a zone defense. It's probably going to help us rebound, too."
Both teams finished with 38 rebounds; it was just the second time this season that Maryland didn't outrebound an opponent.
Fernando stood tall — he took it upon himself to try to amp up the arena during several timeouts in the second half — and his dunk with 9:12 remaining gave Maryland a 56-54 lead. But Turgeon didn't need to run his offense through Fernando down the stretch. Huerter scored all 13 of his points in the second half. Morsell also came alive, beginning with his three-pointer to tie the game at 61 and his rebound that led to Cekovsky's dunk to make it 63-61.
The ball swung Morsell's way again on the next possession, and the freshman didn't hesitate to go back to his bread and butter, driving the lane and finishing an awkward jumper at the rim through contact. But Morsell was still thinking about his three-pointer afterward — he was just 1 for 15 from deep on the season at that point — and he still believes he can give his wounded team an unexpected lift as an outside shooter. Turgeon sometimes catches Morsell icing and using a heat pack on his wrists before games.
"Because he practices his shooting so much," Turgeon said. "That was a big load off his shoulders."