COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The No. 3 Maryland men’s basketball team was on the ropes for the entire second half of its Dec. 7 bout with Illinois. It had been outmatched all evening. Sometimes, though, it only takes one shot to change everything.
Maryland dubbed this week — with matchups against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Illinois Fighting Illini — “Fight Week.” And the Terps won the first fight, thwarting Notre Dame 72-51. But the Illini threw haymakers for two hours. They led 39-25 at the halfway mark and 43-28 with 17:24 remaining. Maryland had never been in such a hole all season. The Terps punched back, but as the clock wound down, it looked like they had run out of time to win the decision.
Then, out of nowhere, came the knockout blow.
It came from senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who drained a 30-foot 3-pointer with 19 seconds remaining to tie the game. Cowan then forced a loose ball on Illinois’ ensuing possession, and Andres Feliz fouled him in the scrum. Cowan hit the first free throw to give Maryland a 59-58 lead, just its second of the entire game, and Illinois couldn’t get off a winning shot.
If one scored this as a 10-round fight and used media timeouts as the dividers, Illinois wins four and draws one of the first five rounds before Maryland takes all five in the second half. But that doesn’t do this game justice. The Terps led twice — at 3-2 and 59-58 — and were on top for only 27 seconds of a 40-minute game. It’s highway robbery of the highest order.
“The basketball gods were obviously on our side. It’s kind of a miracle win,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. “We weren’t very good, I wasn’t very good, and we weren’t ready to play and they were.”
Cowan led Maryland with 20 points on 6-of-14 shooting, adding seven rebounds and six assists. Sophomore forward Jalen Smith scored 14, grabbed 13 rebounds and swatted three shots. Junior guard Darryl Morsell added 10, while sophomores Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala struggled to combine for 13 points on 5-of-21 shooting.
A lot went wrong, and there will be several lingering questions. The Terps shot 33.3 percent from the floor — their worst mark all season entering this game was 40 percent. Maryland stayed cold from long range, going 8-of-31 on 3-pointers. They’re down to 30.4 percent from deep this season, 254th in the country, and at this point, the sample size is large enough to make it a point of serious concern.
Maryland also tightened its rotation once again, playing just six in the second half. The five starters — Cowan, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell and Jalen Smith — and freshman forward Donta Scott combined to play 182 of a possible 200 minutes and scored all 59 points (Scott’s layup with 1:46 left provided the only bench points of the game.)
But the Terps stayed in the game with their defense. They held Illinois to 27.3 percent shooting in the second half after a 47.1 percent first half. Smith, who was outmatched by big men Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kofi Cockburn earlier in the night, held his own in the low post. Illinois didn’t make a field goal in the game’s final 5:05.
Even with these efforts, Maryland still trailed, 57-50, with 2:36 remaining. That’s when Smith, a 24 percent 3-point shooter for the season, was left alone and knocked one down. After Wiggins missed a would-be tying triple, Morsell grabbed the rebound and Maryland called time with 29.8 seconds left. The drawn-up play, which Cowan said was for either himself or Wiggins, broke down, making Cowan’s best choice the 30-foot heave.
“I just saw [the defender] back off a little bit,” Cowan said. “I was wondering why he was kinda far off. I guess he didn’t think I was gonna do that, but I was able to knock down the shot.”
Cowan’s hit his share of daggers throughout his 109 games at Maryland. He put the team on his back in Orlando, dropping 30 points in a comeback win against Temple and ultimately winning tournament MVP honors. But this sequence — the bomb, the steal and the winning free throw — puts him in rarefied air.
“Right when he shot it, I knew it,” Turgeon said. “It looked perfect. I knew it was in. That’s just kind of what he does, and then he stepped up and made the free throw.”
Cowan is averaging 16.6 points per game and 20.2 in his last five. The preseason All-Big Ten selection is delivering on the hype. Illini head coach Brad Underwood, who watched Cowan drop 27 in an overtime thriller at Illinois two seasons ago, didn’t shy away from praising the senior after the game.
“I told him after the game he’s playing as well as anybody in the country and anybody in this league,” Underwood said. “It’s a tribute to who he is. That’s what a senior does — senior steps up and makes big shots and makes big plays, and Mark’s gotta be really proud of that young man.”
The Terps are one of just 12 unbeatens and two 10-0 teams in the country. They’re now 1-0 in the Big Ten. But there are more challenging fights coming Dec. 10 at Penn State — who’s beaten Maryland three straight seasons in State College — and Dec. 19 at Seton Hall. And Maryland knows it can’t keep taking this many punches.
“In the end, it’s a great win, and we’ve got to enjoy it,” Turgeon said. “But we’ve got to get our energy level back.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox