Aaron Wiggins of University of Maryland Basketball about to shoot a basket
Junior guard Aaron Wiggins, shown here in a preseason practice, scored 27 points against Alabama. Credit: Maryland Athletics

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Maryland senior Darryl Morsell fought back tears during his virtual post-game press conference with reporters Monday night. The Terps’ season had just ended in the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament after the team fell to Alabama, 96-77, but Morsell spoke emotionally about his pride in this year’s team.

“It’s the grittiest group of guys I ever played basketball with,” he said. “We were resilient. There’s so many adjectives to describe this team. We are the smallest team in the best conference in the world, playing the best big men in the country that you could throw at us. And we just kept fighting. I think we go down in my record books as the grittiest team ever to put on that Maryland jersey. I can’t do nothing but applaud these guys. Donta [Scott] didn’t come here to play center. We were all playing out of position. We’re all sacrificing but we all put the team first. And I just applaud and appreciate everybody for that.”

Before the season began, Morsell told reporters how the Terps had “unfinished business” after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented last year’s surging Maryland men’s basketball team from fulfilling its potential.

But coaches and players knew this year’s squad wasn’t the same. Analysts picked Maryland to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten Conference. The Terps’ early season performance didn’t dispel that narrative, either, and losses to Northwestern and Penn State to end the regular season put Maryland back on the bubble to reach the NCAA Tournament. (Neither the Wildcats nor the Nittany Lions qualified for the men’s bracket.)

Coach Mark Turgeon referred to this season as “a rebuilding year” on Monday. The team, after its inconsistent play, bad losses, and pandemic-related challenges, wasn’t supposed to be one of the final 32 teams in the tournament.

“We weren’t a Final Four team,” Turgeon said. “Come on, let’s be real. And I think we maximized this team extremely well. And that’s what I told them. I said you guys need to walk out of this building with your head up and proud of what you accomplished, because a lot of teams would kill to be where we were. There’s 359 teams. There was only 32 playing this week, this last two days. And we were one of them. And it was supposed to be a rebuilding year.”

On March 20, the 10th-seeded Maryland upset seventh-seeded UConn, 63-54, in the first round, using their defense to stifle the Huskies. The Terps limited Connecticut’s James Bouknight, a dynamic guard who averaged nearly 19 points a game, to 15 points.

Maryland prided itself on its defense all season and finished 42nd in the nation in scoring defense. The Big Ten named Morsell its Defensive Player of the Year. But as Alabama drained shot after shot beyond the arc on Monday night, the game started to feel out of reach just minutes into the second half. The Crimson Tide went 16 of 33 from the three-point line.

“They shot the heck out of it. They haven’t been shooting it well lately, but they shot it well today,” Turgeon said. “And we’re a good defensive team but we were just a step slow all night. We never could get caught up with their offense. So our offense was good enough at times for us … We just couldn’t guard them.”

As the teams emptied the benches in the final minutes, cameras caught Maryland junior Aaron Wiggins, who had a game-high 27 points, crying and hugging his teammates. After the game Turgeon told his players not to let the Alabama loss take away from their season.

Turgeon’s teams tend to play with a chip on their shoulders. They read what people write about them. To reach this point in the post-season, both Turgeon and Morsell felt like they had proved doubters wrong. For Turgeon, who wrapped up his 10th season at Maryland, this group has “taken it to another level” in terms of his pride, and that it will always have a “special place” in his heart.

Morsell isn’t sure what the future holds. He plans to take a couple days off to reminisce about the season and then get shoulder surgery to repair his fractured labrum. As a senior, he still has a year of eligibility left due to the pandemic, but he hasn’t made a decision of whether or not he will return.

Asked about his favorite memory from this year, Morsell again thought about the doubters and “all the talk leading up to the NCAA Tournament about us not being here, us not being able to do nothing.”

It’s the fire that fuels these Maryland teams.

“Everybody counted us out the whole year,” he said. “We was 1-5, counted out. We was counted out before the year. We was 1-5 in Big Ten, counted out; 4-9 in the Big Ten, counted out. Lost our last two regular season games, still counted us out. I just told everybody how proud of them I was. Never giving up.”