By Paul Newberry, AP Sports Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Belmont proved it belonged. Maryland is moving on.
The Terrapins survived a last-second upset at the NCAA Tournament 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.
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.
TALE OF TWO HALVES
Belmont led by as many as 12 points in the first half and went to the break with a 40-34 lead.
Maryland returned from the locker room intent on putting its size advantage to good use. The Terrapins began pounding the ball inside for easy baskets, or popping it back outside for open jumpers when the Bruins attempted to double-team the Maryland big men — and it resulted in a 14-0 run to start the half.
“We let them come out in the second half and run loose on us,” Byrd said.
Belmont: The Bruins hung tough despite missing one of their top backups. Freshman forward Caleb Hollander remained at the team hotel in Jacksonville with an illness and the Bruins were without a player who averaged 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Backup center Seth Adelsperger, known as “Mountain Man,” gave the Bruins some huge minutes when Muszynski went to the bench with foul trouble. Not known as much of an offensive threat, Adelsperger rocked the rim with back-to-back dunks that sent the Belmont bench into a tizzy.
Maryland: This was the sort of test that should serve the Terps well in the next round. They displayed plenty of balance, scored on the inside and the perimeter, and made only five turnovers in an extremely well-played game by both teams. Belmont also had just five turnovers.
“We played really well to win this game,” Turgeon said.
Belmont: Returns home to savor its first NCAA victory and a stellar season that included a triumph at UCLA and a 14-game winning streak.
Maryland: Will be looking to advance to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2016 when it faces LSU.
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