On Thursday afternoon the Maryland Terrapins started their 2019 NCAA tournament run with a 79-77 win over the Belmont Bruins. It was a slug fest of a game, with both teams trading punches down the stretch. In the end, the Terps pulled out the win to advance to the second round for the first time since 2016.

Coming into this matchup Belmont was a trendy upset pick across the country and probably even a favorite in the state of Maryland due to chronic pessimism coming from Terps fans.

The appreciation for Belmont was not unwarranted, though. The Bruins shot just under 50% as a team all year and simply overpowered their opponents even with a lackluster defense. In addition, their fast pace of play and good ball security made for a dangerous matchup with Maryland’s turnover issues. As a Maryland fan I could never pick against the Terps in the first round, especially when they are the better seed, but I understood the Belmont hype.

In the early goings Belmont executed a good game plan but had some trouble converting on their shots. Double-teaming Bruno Fernando was likely at the top of their to do list and they wasted no time getting an extra body on the Terps big man.

Nebraska saw a lot of success while doubling up on Fernando in the Big Ten tournament but the Terps did not have an answer. This time around they were able to lean more heavily on Jalen Smith to pick up the slack. The freshman quickly rose to the occasion with some great defense and consistent offense. Smith was perfect on his first four shot attempts but had to sit for the final few minutes of the half after picking up a second foul.

Fernando’s energy was low and I honestly can’t blame him. After breaking through the double team a few times he got some decent shot opportunities but the ball just wasn’t falling for him. Despite the shooting struggles Fernando still found ways to be active on the boards, bringing in ten rebounds in the first half.

Considering Fernando and Anthony Cowan’s cold starts, Maryland was lucky to only be down 40-34 at the break. Their three-point shooting left a lot to be desired but unlike most of their Big ten contests, they were able to get a lot of movement and drive to the rim pretty easily. Belmont turned in a consistent attack inside and out but was not on fire like they had been in so many games this season, leaving the door open for Maryland.

The second half provided an opportunity for a fresh start and the Terps looked like a brand new team when the game resumed. Fernando led the way with seven quick points in a 14-0 run that saw the Terps storm back and claim the lead just three minutes into the second half.

The momentum had completely shifted and the entire Terps team was feeling the magic that only comes during the month of March. However, a lot of basketball was still left to be played and it wasn’t long until Belmont regained their composure and brought themselves back. The Terps and Bruins traded punches down the stretch and the game remained air tight. The biggest lead during this time was a seven-point advantage for Belmont but that didn’t last long before the teams were back to swapping the lead.

Smith picked up where he left off in the first half and was an unstoppable force inside. If he wasn’t scoring on his own, he was cleaning up a teammate’s missed shot with an offensive board and a put-back bucket. Smith finished the afternoon with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and just one turnover. Stix did not have to carry the torch alone as Darryl Morsell joined him with a career performance of his own.

While Morsell turned in a season-high 18 points, the stats don’t tell the full story. The sophomore was responsible for Maryland’s biggest plays down the stretch, including the game-sealing turnover. In a game where you’re only upperclassman was not at his best and the bench was not providing much support, Morsell’s performance was invaluable. 

Maryland came very close to playing the best game they could in the opening round. We knew coming in that the offense would have to be on-point from start to finish to keep up with the Bruins. The Terps limited their droughts and made up for any mistakes with strong scoring runs of their own.

Not only did the Terps keep pace with Belmont offensively, but they never shot themselves in the foot with excessive turnovers or low energy on the boards. As a team Maryland out-rebounded Belmont 41-37 and limited their turnovers to just five.

Cowan’s rough afternoon stands out as one of the few downsides to the game. He will need to get back on track if the Terps want to make things easier on Saturday when they square off against the No. 3 seeded LSU Tigers.

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