By the time senior guard Darryl Morsell scored on a reverse dunk in transition off Jairus Hamilton’s steal early in the second half, the Terrapins were well on their way to an 85-67 win at Xfinity Center. That play from Morsell, which would have typically ignited the home crowd, forced an Old Dominion timeout, affirmed the Terps’ command of the matchup and prompted a leaping hug off the bench from freshman teammate Aquan Smart, one of the 10 players who scored for the Terps.
This Maryland team began the 2020-21 season with low expectations compared with its Big Ten peers and a pair of obvious voids after the departures of senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and forward Jalen Smith, a lottery pick in last week’s NBA draft. But the concern surrounding those players’ absences has somewhat overshadowed the return of a few veterans, who all performed well in the opener.
Eric Ayala, a junior taking over point guard duties this season, impressed with 19 points, just one shy of his career high, on 6-for-6 shooting, including four three-pointers. Coach Mark Turgeon said Ayala entered this season with a new mentality. That manifested in a strong season debut and offered optimism for how this team could evolve despite a new set of players leading the way.
Describing what has changed in his approach, Ayala said: “I really want to win. A lot of people count us out a little bit and put us on a back burner, and I really want to win a lot this year.”
Three other Terps also reached double figures: sophomore forward Donta Scott, who scored a career-high 14 points and went 3 for 5 from behind the arc, as well as Aaron Wiggins and Morsell, who had 12 points apiece.
“Us having a deep team helps everybody not see, ‘Oh, this guy is better than this guy,’ ” said Scott, whose offensive role seems poised to expand during his sophomore season. “We see each other as equals, and we’re each going to fight.”
Maryland’s starting lineup Wednesday featured five upperclassmen, including Hamilton, a junior forward, and senior forward Galin Smith, who both transferred into the program in the offseason. The Monarchs kept the game tight through much of the first half, but Maryland found its rhythm with a 13-0 run just before halftime to take a 42-29 lead into the break. Maryland pressed effectively, and the Terps scored 14 points off turnovers.
“I feel like once we settled into the game and we turned our defense up,” Smith said, “it started to change the game for us.”
Maryland had three turnovers before the first media timeout but only six more the rest of the game. The Terps started the afternoon shooting 1 for 6 from three-point range, but they finished the game 10 for 23, with five different players hitting shots from deep.
Morsell’s dunk with 17:11 to go pushed Maryland’s lead to 21 points, and the Terps’ advantage never dipped below 18 points the rest of the game as a handful of freshmen made their Maryland debuts. Morsell finished with eight rebounds and four assists, which both led the team.
“Darryl’s important, man,” Turgeon said. “He’s had a great career to this point. He’s really played well. His shot looks good, doesn’t it? . . . He gets better every year. He just keeps getting better.”
Turgeon said Morsell “banged his shoulder a little bit” a few weeks ago. He’s almost back to full strength, and the senior played 22 minutes against Old Dominion.
The previous time Maryland played, just before the coronavirus pandemic led to a canceled postseason in March, the Terps’ afternoon ended in celebration as they cut down the nets after earning a share of the Big Ten regular season title. In that game against Michigan, Cowan and Smith led the team as usual in what became the last game of their Maryland careers. But in a way, “the torch was kind of being passed,” Turgeon said this week, because Ayala and Wiggins combined to score 35 points that day. Now those two juniors, along with veterans such as Morsell, are the ones tasked with generating the necessary boosts for this team.
The matchup against Old Dominion was initially scheduled to be the first of four games during a seven-day stretch, but just before the Terps tipped off Wednesday, Monmouth announced a positive coronavirus test in its program and canceled its first three games, including next week’s visit to College Park. Maryland is “actively searching for a new opponent for Tuesday,” a team spokesman said. The start of the college basketball season already has featured numerous cancellations around the country as programs deal with coronavirus outbreaks, but Maryland managed to open the season without trouble.
Turgeon called the game “unique,” noting that coaches waved at each other instead of shaking hands, the crowd noise was piped in and his players weren’t sure whether they were allowed to touch each other as starters were announced to an empty arena. The players were “either nervous or confused,” Turgeon said.
“But I’ll tell you this: It was fun,” Turgeon said. “It was fun to be back out there. It was taken away from us, rightfully so, last year. And it’s just fun to play a game.”