College basketball’s most chaotic moments have a way of coming when least expected.
Maryland senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. wasn’t supposed to be stepping to the foul line for high-pressure free throws with 12.1 seconds left Feb. 11 against Nebraska. The Terps were favored by 17 points and had led by as many as 14. But here they were, leading just 71-70 after a series of lapses on both ends of the floor, needing Cowan to calmly right the ship.
He couldn’t. The front end of his one-and-one clanked off the front of the rim, giving Nebraska a chance to take the lead. Cornhuskers leading scorer Cam Mack drove to the basket, but Terps sophomore center Jalen Smith met him there and blocked him. By the time anyone knew what was happening, Smith had grabbed the rebound and drawn a foul, icing a bizarre game with 0.7 seconds remaining.
Maryland’s 72-70 win is its seventh in a row, and it moves the Terps to 20-4 overall and 10-3 in the Big Ten. But it showed that every game can still be dangerous.
“It definitely was a weird locker room — we didn’t know whether to celebrate or really kind of be down on ourselves,” Cowan said after the game. “But at the end of the day, it’s the Big Ten — every game is gonna be difficult, and we’ve gotta be better.”
For most of the night, Maryland was in control. The Terps only trailed at 2-0, and they used a 10-0 run to take control with a 30-19 lead. They went into halftime up 38-25, and even when Nebraska made a second-half charge and slashed the lead to 56-54, Maryland responded with an 8-0 run. Nebraska hung around, but junior guard Darryl Morsell’s corner three made it 71-64 entering the final minute.
Then the wheels fell off. Nebraska hit a three, forced a turnover on the inbounds pass and hit one of two free throws to make it 71-68. The Huskers needed three fouls to put Maryland at the line, and Ayala missed the front end of a one-and-one. Turgeon called for his team to foul Mack, who had struggled the entire game, but he made both foul shots. Nebraska fouled Cowan, and he missed at the line, and it took Smith’s defensive heroics to save the Terps from a demoralizing defeat.
“I just can’t even tell you how long a season is, and how hard it is this year in the Big Ten,” Turgeon said. “If you’re gonna have a flat game, have it at home against a team that’s won two and figure out how to win it.”
Cowan called this the worst defensive game he’s played in four years at Maryland. While that’s a subjective statement and perhaps an overreaction, the numbers are striking. Nebraska shot 54.8 percent from the floor in the second half. Senior Haanif Cheatham, who was questionable with a calf injury, notched 18 points after intermission (20 total) and almost single-handedly led an upset.
The Terps’ offense, meanwhile, got contributions from all over. Five Terps scored at least nine points and three had double-doubles in some form. Smith racked up 16 points and 13 rebounds for his seventh straight double-double (he almost had it by halftime). Cowan shot just 2-of-7 from the field but connected on 9 of 12 free throws to finish with 13 points in addition to a season-high 10 assists. And freshman forward Donta Scott recorded his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Perhaps the biggest individual headline is Eric Ayala’s performance. The sophomore guard had been mired in a severe shooting slump, but he drilled four of eight 3-point attempts and finished with a season-high 16 points. Each triple seemed to carry more emotion than the last.
“It’s just a relief that the work is working,” Ayala said. “I credit all that to just staying in the gym. Throughout this whole stretch, I’ve just been staying in the gym and just shooting as many as I can — every day, just putting a lot of shots up.”
Nebraska plays fast, and both teams got out in transition a handful of times, but both teams shot poorly from distance — the Huskers went 7-of-33, while Maryland was 7-of-23 (everyone outside of Ayala was 3-of-15). The Terps also committed 17 turnovers, their most since Jan. 10.
It was almost an emphatic case of the trap game. Maryland was coming off a comeback win at then-No. 20 Illinois, and the Terps travel to Michigan State Feb. 15. The middle of the sandwich was a home game against a team 2-10 in league play. And if Smith doesn’t block Mack’s layup in the final seconds, this could have been as bad a loss as any national contender has endured this season.
“We didn’t respect our opponent enough,” Turgeon said. “I take the blame for that.”
But the Terps got away with it.
1. Maryland’s top six played 186 of a possible 200 minutes, which has become the norm in close league games. And only eight Terps entered the game, with Serrel Smith Jr. and Chol Marial logging eight and six first-half minutes, respectively. Marial, the 7-foot-2 fan favorite, grabbed two offensive rebounds and flipped one home for his first bucket since Jan. 4 against Indiana.
On the flip side, Ricky Lindo was a DNP for the first time since Nov. 30 against Marquette; when asked about the sophomore’s absence, Turgeon said he wanted to see Lindo be more consistent on defense. Joshua Tomaic also didn’t appear, although he and Marial have essentially been a platoon. This game could have provided a chance to stretch out the rotation, but Maryland didn’t afford itself that luxury.
2. Already heavy underdogs, Nebraska was without third-leading scorer Dachon Burke, who stayed home with the flu. Cheatham was a game-time decision. Mack went 1-of-10 and Kevin Cross went 2-of-10. Former walk-on Thorir Thorbjarnarson delivered a steady 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, and Cheatham took over late.
“He showed a lot of toughness tonight, made huge plays for us down the stretch — getting to the basket, getting to the free-throw line,” Huskers head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s a tough kid.”
3. This was easily Maryland’s weakest crowd for a Big Ten game this season — although attendance is listed at 14,396, the arena wasn’t close to full. But those in attendance still made their presence felt, first at the expense of Mack. The sophomore airballed a three early in the game, so the fans did what fans do — they chanted “airball” every time he touched the ball from that point forward. The chants got louder as he kept missing, peaking on a pair of bricked free throws. Mack missed his last nine shots to finish 1-of-10.
Of course, when this became a game, the fans gave Maryland the energy jolt it needed. And while everyone walked out of Xfinity Center confused and in some ways worried, the Terps were still undefeated at home.
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