By Jack Ryan
Maryland survived a last-second upset when Eric Ayala deflected a pass, leading to a steal by Darryl Morsell that allowed Maryland to escape with a 79-77 victory in the East Region of the NCAA tournament.
Playing their second tournament game in less than 48 hours, No. 11-seeded Belmont shook off weary legs to justify the selection committee giving them one of the final at-large bids.
Belmont took Maryland to the final seconds but the No. 6 Terrapins came up with the winning stop at the end.
“If not for one little deflection,” said Rick Byrd, Belmont’s 805-win coach, “I think we’d be playing Saturday afternoon.”
Instead, it was Maryland (23-10) advancing to face LSU in the second round following the thriller with Belmont.
“Is my heart rate like I’m sleeping? No!” Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon said. “I just love it. So much fun.”
Dylan Windler scored 35 points to give Belmont a chance, hitting seven 3-pointers with his Harden-like step back beyond the arc. .
“They’re almost impossible to guard,” Turgeon said, with plenty of admiration in his voice for the mid-major powerhouse from Nashville, Tennessee.
Maryland was clinging to a one-point lead and the shot clock was off as Belmont (26-6) went for a buzzer-beating win. The Bruins didn’t bother calling a timeout to set up a play; they knew what they wanted to do — a backdoor pass to Windler that had been one of their bread-and-butter calls all afternoon.
But Ayala got a hand on the pass from freshman Grayson Murphy and Morsell stepped in front of Windler to pick off the ball, the Belmont star tumbling to the court behind him. Morsell was fouled with 2.5 seconds to go, sending him to the other end of the court for a pair of free throws.
“Coaches were screaming, `Back door!” Morsell said. “Eric got his hand on the ball.”
Morsell made the first free throw and missed the second, forcing Windler to heave a desperation shot from midcourt that didn’t come close to hitting the rim.
That set off a relieved celebration from the Maryland contingent.
Windler sank to the court, thoroughly exhausted after playing all but 88 seconds on the heels of a victory over Temple in a play-in game Tuesday — the first NCAA Tournament victory in Belmont history.
Jalen Smith led four Maryland players in double figures with 19 points, including a huge three-point play with 1:41 remaining. Belmont appeared to get a crucial stop when Nick Muszynski swatted away a shot by Bruno Fernando, setting off a wild scramble that left four players — three from Belmont, one from Maryland — sprawled on the floor.
Morsell came up with the loose ball and fed it to Smith under the basket for a thunderous dunk that also drew a foul. Smith knocked down the free throw, giving the Terps a 77-73 lead.
It held up.