With one emphatic and timely two-handed dunk, Mount Saint Joseph’s alum and Maryland freshman forward Jalen Smith officially let us know Thursday that March Madness is here for the next few weeks.
Breathe it in:
The Terps advanced to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s round of 32 with a dramatic 79-77 win over Belmont University, the second-highest scoring team in the country, and the victory was punctuated by Smith’s slam that gave Maryland a three-point lead with just under two minutes left, in a critical and Baltimore-flavored sequence.
Smith’s former Mount St. Joe teammate, sophomore Darryl Morsell, fed Smith the ball on the play and, about 30 seconds earlier, Morsell, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard, delivered another key moment with a driving layup in which he drew a foul and drained the ensuing free throw to put the Terps’ up 74-71.
As a two-time state player of the year nicknamed “Stix” for his stringy frame, Smith had his “best game in a long time,” with 19 points and 12 rebounds, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. And with Morsell scoring a college career-high 18 points, it was if the MIAA or Baltimore Catholic League tournaments were playing out on the NCAA branded floor in Jacksonville, Florida, albeit in front of a much larger nationally televised audience.
“Our Bmore guys stepped up today,” Turgeon said during the team’s post-game press conference, with Morsell sitting beside him along with teammates Bruno Fernando (14 points, 13 rebounds) and Eric Ayala (12 points). “They were terrific.”
Smith and Morsell, a duo that played for three years together at Mount St. Joe and enjoyed much success at the high school level, powered the Terps’ to their first postseason win in three years, and helped make Turgeon’s hot seat a little cooler by holding off a projected Cinderella in Belmont to set up a game on Saturday against LSU. The game will air at 12:10 p.m. on CBS. (And, speaking of the TV broadcast, you can also catch Baltimore’s Evan Washburn working the sideline during other games throughout the tournament.)
There are more Bmore guys, too. Another Mount St. Joe alum, Phil Booth, who has program bragging rights after winning the NCAA championship last year with Villanova, scored 20 points on Thursday in Nova’s round of 64 win over Saint Mary’s. Booth has scored 122 career points in the NCAA tournament, most of anyone who’s playing in it right now.
After the win, he fielded questions from reporters like the seasoned tournament veteran he is.
“There’s a lot of distractions that come in the NCAA tournament,” Booth said, “so the best thing you can do is focus on your opponent, take care of your body, and focus in on what you have to do as a team.”
The defending champs play Purdue on Saturday night on TNT. (Catch your Law & Order reruns some other time.)
Elsewhere, if you’re looking for a local team to act as this year’s U Might Be Cinderella because, sadly, the UMBC Retrievers did not make the Big Dance this time, your best chances are to watch the 15th-ranked Towson women’s team play perennial power and second-seeded UConn at 7 p.m. Friday.
And if you want to see games in person, the shortest drive is to the Xfinity Center, where the Maryland women, seeded third, are hosting 14th-seeded Radford at 11 a.m. Saturday. Then Tennessee and UCLA play there immediately following in a first-round doubleheader, as the Madness continues and we watch transfixed.