Maryland and Belmont engaged in a back-and-forth first-round matchup in Jacksonville on Thursday as the No. 4 seed Terrapins advanced in the East Region of the NCAA tournament with a 79-77 victory.
Belmont had a chance to go ahead trailing 78-77 on what could have been the game’s final possession but an errant backdoor pass from Grayson Murphy became a turnover as Maryland’s Eric Ayala tipped to ball as the Terps recovered the ball. Darryl Morsell (18 points) made one of two free throws for Maryland and Belmont had a final game-winning attempt from Dylan Windler — but his desperation half-court heave fell short.
Trailing by six at the half, the Terps (23-10) came roaring back in the second half behind a balanced effort. Despite an off-day from starting point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (nine points on 3-for-18 shooting), Maryland got strong efforts from four other players. The frontcourt of Jalen Smith (19 points, 12 rebounds) and Bruno Fernando (14 points, 13 rebounds) both tallied double-doubles and Smith’s emphatic and-one dunk with under two minutes left gave Maryland a two-possession lead. Eric Ayala (12 points) also finished in double-figures for the Terps.
Belmont (27-6) had a monster outing from senior Dylan Windler as he finished with a game-high 35 points — including a very good 7-for-14 day from three-point territory. After advancing past Temple in the First Four in Dayton on Tuesday night, the Bruins looked like they could pull off the potential upset until the game’s final possessions. Guard Kevin McClain also had a solid day with 19 points. But nobody else on the Belmont roster could muster more than six points in the game.
Maryland is heading to the second round as they play No. 3 seed LSU on Saturday in Jacksonville. That matchup will feature a great frontcourt battle between Smith and Fernando going against LSU’s Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams. The matchup at point guard could be the difference, however, as Cowan will need to play better going against a strong lead guard in the Tigers’ Tremont Waters.
The Terps have to be pleased that they escaped with this win as they struggled from three-point range (6-for-22 for 27 percent) while Cowan had a horrible shooting day. If Cowan can return to his normal form, then Saturday’s second-round matchup should be pretty evenly matched.