“Oh, I knew it would end up in Anthony’s hands,” sophomore Jalen Smith said. “It always ends up in Anthony’s hands when it counts.”
The play that produced the three-pointer came after a timeout, when everything Coach Mark Turgeon had drawn up had broken down. “We panicked a little bit,” Turgeon said, “which we kind of did all day.”
But then Cowan saw space between himself and his defender. With his back to Cowan, Smith only heard the sound of a ball swishing through the net and the roar of the crowd.
Cowan, a senior point guard, has made clear his desire to lead these Terrapins — especially in situations such as the one Maryland found itself in Saturday at Xfinity Center — and hungers for every opportunity to show leadership. That opportunity came with Maryland down 15 in the second half. By the time it was over, the last of Cowan’s game-high 20 points providing the decisive margin, the crowd chanted “MVP” to Cowan and Maryland remained undefeated.
After the game, though, Cowan said his message to the team was this: “We’ve got to be better. We obviously didn’t play our best game. We’re here to win a championship.”
Cowan knew — and so did everyone else — that Saturday’s performance was nowhere near a title-winning display.
Maryland (10-0, 1-0) has survived for over a month, overcoming its tendency to start slowly. But Saturday’s poor start was its worst yet, and it was compounded by playing a quality conference foe. The combination forced the Terrapins to make their largest second-half comeback in more than two years. The last time Illini Coach Brad Underwood visited College Park, his 2016-17 Oklahoma State team watched a 12-point lead in the second half turn into a loss.
“Basketball gods were obviously on our side,” Turgeon said. “It’s kind of a miracle win. We weren’t very good. I wasn’t very good. We weren’t ready to play, and they were.”
After a sluggish start and a rocky first half, Maryland spent the rest of the game working to climb back, gradually chipping away at a margin that reached 15 not long after intermission.
With less than three minutes to go, Smith hit a three-pointer to bring the Terps within four, the closest they had been since early in the game. Freshman Donta Scott then made a layup, narrowing the margin further and bringing a burst of life to Xfinity Center. Scott picked up a foul when the Terps pressed on Illinois’s following possession. Trent Frazier made one of two free throws to put the Illini (6-3, 0-1) up 58-55, but the visitors never scored again.
After his tying three, Cowan forced a steal on the Illini’s ensuing possession and was fouled as he came up with the ball with two seconds left, setting up his final piece of heroics.
In addition to Cowan, Smith (14 points) and Darryl Morsell (10 points) also reached double figures for the Terps. Smith has notched six double-doubles this season and played solid defense against Illinois’ formidable front line.
The Terps trailed 39-25 at the end of first half, their largest deficit of the season. The Terps had come back from down 12 against Rhode Island, but in that game Maryland had already taken a lead by halftime.
On Saturday, Maryland shot itself into the first-half deficit, making just 30.3 percent from the field and 3 of 14 from beyond the arc. Turgeon said his group played selfishly with everyone “trying to play hero ball, trying to be the guy that gets us going.”
Turgeon started his four-guard lineup — Cowan, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Morsell and Smith — for the third straight game. That group helped Maryland keep pace early with Marquette, the Terps’ best opponent to date. Turgeon has stuck with those starters since, even Saturday against the Illini, who had 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn and 6-9 forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili in their starting five. But to open the second half, Turgeon went with Scott in place of Ayala.
After Maryland trudged out to another slow start, Turgeon called a timeout when his team trailed 16-5 at the 12:11 mark. The Terps made 2 of 14 shots to start the game, including some misses on easy layups. The Terps had few positives in what Turgeon called “by far our worst half of the year.” Even the shootaround before the matchup went poorly, Turgeon said.
Turgeon told his players at halftime that they could find a way to beat Illinois by 15 points through the next 20 minutes. Then he told his staff, “We’re going to have to hold [Illinois] to almost nothing because our offense is no good.”
This team has grown accustomed to climbing back, but it had never had to do so from this far behind. The Maryland defense delivered and didn’t allow a field goal in the final five minutes, which finally gave the Terps room to surge closer. Turgeon, meanwhile, shortened his rotation to essentially six players in the second half.
Turgeon and his players were happy with the result, but they know this is not a sustainable formula.
“It’s nice when you can win, miracle win, and learn from it,” Turgeon said. “Hopefully we’ll learn from it.”