By Jack Rothenberg
Riding Daryll Morsell’s career night and an incredible defensive effort, the Maryland Terrapins came out of State Farm Center with a stunning 66-63 upset over the No. 12 ranked Illinois Fighting Illini making this the second time in two weeks the Terps have taken down a top 15 conference foe on the road. The sophomore guard (career-high 19 points) had the hot hand with 15 second half points, including a key basket with 33 seconds left that extended a tenuous Maryland lead to 64-61, and even though Illini’s star guard Ayo Dosunmu finished with 23 points, Morsell’s defense kept him in check by forcing him to take 23 shots.
Illinois’ other star, center Kofi Cockburn, compiled 21 points and 10 boards but the damage could’ve been much worse if not for the outstanding play of senior forward Galin Smith. Facing a significant size disadvantage, Smith helped keep Cockburn under wraps limiting him to just two shots in the second half and getting a key tap out on a missed shot by Morsell with just over a minute to play that led to a three point shot by sophomore guard Hakim Hart that put the Terps ahead to stay.
At several points throughout the contest Illinois had gained momentum and seemed poised to pull away, but a Terp would always answer to keep Maryland in the game and eventually made enough plays down the stretch to secure the victory. The Terps went into Champaign on a three-game losing streak with two of those happening on the back of opposing big men. Maryland seemed to have a steeper hill because against Illinois they would be facing not only another tough low post presence, but they would also be without one of their top performers in junior guard Eric Ayala who sat out the game due to a groin injury, but none of it mattered.
“Obviously I’m very pleased with my team. We really battled tonight – down Eric Ayala. [Illinois] is a great basketball team, I think a team that can be a final four team [but] we just battled. It felt like Maryland basketball,” head coach Mark Turgeon said.
Early on, Maryland struggled in transition. Both in not getting back on defense and because of turnovers which allowed Illinois to catch a rhythm, and build their largest lead of the game at seven points just 5 minutes into the game. Immediately after, sophomore center Chol Marial checked in with Cockburn on the bench and instantly made an impact on both ends. First, Marial forced an Illinois missed lay-up, because of his length and then on a pick-and-pop with junior forward Jairus Hamilton, Marial knocked down a three pointer. Marial’s first career triple was part of a 9-0 Maryland run that provided Maryland an 18-16 lead.
Late in the half with the game knotted up at 25, Cockburn finally started to impose his dominance, scoring on consecutive possessions to give Illinois a four point lead. As Maryland was searching for offense, junior guard Aaron Wiggins answered the call with a three to keep the Terps close. Sophomore forward Donta Scott made sure the game remained within one possession by hitting a three with three seconds left on the clock. Down 34-32 at half, Maryland was still in striking distance.
Someone lit a fire under Morsell at halftime, because he not only came out of the locker room and opened the scoring for Maryland but over a three minute stretch he scored nine straight and helped the Terps amass a five point lead with just under 14 minutes to play. Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu (21 points) went shot for shot in the second half with Morsell and basically the entire Maryland team. Dosunmu went hard to the hoop and put the Fighting Illini ahead 61-59 right before the under four minute TV timeout. Both teams went cold when they returned to the floor for the game’s closing minutes. On the ensuing possessions, neither team could find the basket until Smith back tapped an offensive rebound to Morsell at the top of the key who made a quick pass to Hart who knocked down a huge shot from beyond the arc to give Maryland a 62-61 lead with 1:20 left.
Morsell capped off his tremendous night with under a minute remaining when he drove to the basket, challenged Cockburn at the rim, and converted on a tough contested lay-up to extend the Terps’ lead to 64-61. “We basically [went the last] two games without Daryll Morsell…I think it shows how important he is to us. He locked in and really tried to guard tonight [and] did a terrific job,” Turgeon said.
Following another upset win on the road against a top 15 ranked squad, Maryland has shown they can compete with the top teams in the Big Ten. The question is whether they can do it on a night in and night out basis, which the answer to this point in the season is an obvious no. The Terps will look to back up last night’s impressive performance when they host the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Jan. 16 at Xfinity Center. The Cornhuskers are 0-5 in Big Ten play and will face the Fighting Illini three days before they play Maryland.
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