The life of an NCAA Tournament bubble team presents a different stress from anything else in sports. Every night, every game, becomes a referendum on the team’s season-long body of work. Each loss feels like it could be the last straw — except with a selection committee instead of straight-up standings, nobody really knows.
Maryland men’s basketball has lived the bubble life for what feels like the entire 2020-21 season, or at least as long as the conversation has been taking place. The Terps entered the week 10-10 in Division I games (11-10 overall) and just 5-9 in the Big Ten, but with enough quality wins to remain in the mix. Back-to-back games against Nebraska — a product of the teams’ postponed matchup in January — presented a chance to string together much-needed wins, but also multiple opportunities for a crushing defeat.
But the Terps took care of business on both nights, cruising past the last-place Cornhuskers 64-50 on Tuesday, Feb. 16, and 79-71 on Wednesday, Feb. 17. The victories bring Maryland to 12-10 in Division I and 7-9 in the conference, and the Terps have now won three straight contests after previously picking up a 72-59 Valentine’s Day win against Minnesota.
Here’s how it all played out, and an attempt to make sense of what it means.
Game 1 (Feb. 16) — Maryland 64, Nebraska 50
This was a close contest most of the way, with the Terps and Cornhuskers trading bricks and turnovers well into the second half. The opening frame featured eight lead changes, with Nebraska leading by one before Maryland scored five points in the final 32 seconds of the period, highlighted by Darryl Morsell’s half-court heave at the buzzer. Maryland struggled to build on that 32-28 halftime lead, and the score was level at 44 with eight minutes remaining.
From there, though, the Terps closed on a 20-6 run, finally gaining separation from the Big Ten’s bottom-feeder.
Maryland’s offense had fits with Nebraska’s feisty zone defense, committing a season-high 17 turnovers on the night. All of those giveaways came in the game’s first 32 minutes — at the 8:49 mark, the Terps were only shooting 15-of-40 to balance those turnovers. From there, though, Maryland went 8-of-13 with no giveaways to pull away from Nebraska. The Huskers’ offense never found a rhythm all night.
Jairus Hamilton kept the Terps afloat in the first half, as the junior forward knocked down 4 of 5 field goals and 3 of 4 triples to enter the locker room with a game-high 11 points. He finished with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, but it was Aaron Wiggins who starred late. The junior guard piled up 12 points in the final 7:14 of game time to finish with 21 (on 8-of-15), one shy of his season and career high.
Ayala shot just 2-of-10 from distance but went 3-of-3 inside the arc and 2-of-2 at the line to finish with 14 points. Donta Scott tallied nine points and eight rebounds, while Morsell chipped in five points (he went 1-of-5; his lone field goal came from nearly half-court). Only those five Terps found the scoreboard — Hakim Hart shot 0-of-5, Galin Smith followed a 10-point outing with a scoreless 0-of-2 and Aquan Smart missed Maryland’s only other shot attempt.
Teddy Allen led Nebraska with 18 points, while Dalano Banton notched 10. The Huskers shot a meager 18-of-54 as a team and 8-of-28 from distance, which allowed the Terps to survive a struggle of their own.
Game 2 (Feb. 17) — Maryland 79, Nebraska 71
The separation came much earlier on this night. After another back-and-forth first half, Maryland pulled ahead by double digits early in the second period, stretching the margin as high as 20. The shots stopped falling down the stretch — which allowed Nebraska to go on a late run and, uh, viscerally frustrate those who had a vested interest in the 10.5-point spread — but the damage was already done.
Ayala and Wiggins dominated this game as a duo. Ayala set a new career high with 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting, while Wiggins went 9-of-18 and equaled his personal best with 22 points. Both juniors connected on 4 of 9 attempts from deep, and the pair was nearly combining to outscore Nebraska early in the second half. Hamilton delivered another strong performance, notching 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting (3-of-5 on threes). Morsell and Scott each tallied six, while Hart and Smith got back on the board with five and two points, respectively.
It was a much more cohesive start-to-finish performance for the Terps, who shot 29-of-61 (47.5 percent) from the floor and 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) from long range. Perhaps more significant was the drastic improvement in turnovers, down from 17 one night earlier to just four.
“The one thing we did talk about was more pass fakes and shot fakes today, because they’re so long and they play everything high, so I think we did a better job of pass-faking and shot-faking and reading the situation and not getting in a hurry,” Turgeon said. “I can’t tell you why we had 17 last night and four tonight, but I just know that we’re getting better as a team, and that’s really what it’s all about.”
The defense remained stiff, forcing 11 Nebraska turnovers and holding the Huskers to 42.9 percent shooting. Allen poured in 25 on 8-of-12 shooting, Lat Mayen scored 13 and Banton had 11.
The Morsell milestones
The senior from Baltimore made his 100th career start (in 118 total appearances) for Maryland in the second game of this midweek series. And with just under 15 minutes remaining in the contest, Morsell forced a turnover and converted a fast-break layup to surpass 1,000 career points.
“I looked up at the board and I saw that they had a [graphic] of him with 1,000 career points and 100 career starts, and the first thing I said to him was congrats. I was really happy for him,” Wiggins said. “And all he was thinking about was, ‘Can we get this win?’ So I told him, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna get this win, but congratulations, ’cause that’s a huge milestone.’ That’s big.”
Morsell is the 56th player in Maryland men’s basketball history to reach the 1,000-point milestone, and just the 20th to start 100 games. He’s always been a tough, gritty defender, but even Turgeon admits he didn’t expect Morsell to become such a reliable presence on the other end. He’s evolved into a centerpiece as a senior, but it’s fitting that his milestone bucket came in transition coming off a play he made on defense.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Morsell said. “Growing up in Baltimore, being right down the street, being able to score 1,000 points for my home-state school, it’s a blessing. … I know my parents are proud of me. It’s an honor just to be mentioned with all the great players that were here.”
Maryland’s up-to-date standing on the bubble varies from bracketologist to bracketologist, but ESPN’s Joe Lunardi moved the Terps into the field after the first win of this series. The second win won’t necessarily move them up much further, but it’s much better than a Quadrant 3 loss, which would have been difficult to recover from.
The rotation, which has been trimmed to a core of seven players for a while now, looks a lot more promising when Hamilton provides a reliable scoring option. He finished the two games with a combined 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting (7-of-10 from deep). While Smith took a step back after his 10-point showing against Minnesota, Hamilton stepped in as a frontcourt scoring option to complement Ayala and Wiggins — who have seemingly alternated good and bad performances all year but finally seem to be playing well at the same time.
Maryland’s next challenge comes in the form of a visit to Rutgers, which is back out of the AP rankings but sits 26th in KenPom’s predictive model. Then the Terps host Michigan State, visit Northwestern and host Penn State to close the regular season. Rutgers would be the marquee win of the group, and more than one loss in this final four-game stretch likely leaves the Terps with work to do in the Big Ten tournament.
At the moment, though, Maryland is in good shape. Three straight wins have the resume looking much better than it did just a few days ago. Sweeping a back-to-back is always a challenge, but the Terps did just that.
“I was nervous about these games going in — Nebraska was playing well — and our guys handled it, and they were mentally tough tonight and did a lot of great things,” Turgeon said. “Good wins for us.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox