A quick burst over the next few minutes extended Michigan State’s lead to seven with about three minutes to go. At that point, Maryland had scored only 14 points in the second half, and the Terps hadn’t made a three-pointer. The Breslin Center crowd erupted, and forward Thomas Kithier slapped the floor as the Terps began a critical possession.
The Terps’ Jalen Smith hit a three-pointer to quiet the crowd, then grabbed a rebound on the other end — and Anthony Cowan Jr. took over from there. The senior point guard had air-balled a three-point attempt earlier in the half and hadn’t made a basket since the game’s opening minutes. But with a critical road win still possible, Cowan made three straight three-pointers to seal Maryland’s 67-60 victory.
“Ant’s a killer,” Smith said. “He can hit any shot. I believe if he heaves it up from half court, he’ll hit it.”
Cowan was everything Maryland needed in that season-defining moment. And he was exactly what his team needed afterward, when he convinced himself and his teammates that even a win of this magnitude means little in the big picture.
Despite emerging as the front-runner to win the Big Ten regular season title, No. 7 Maryland (21-4, 11-3) still has six games to play, beginning with Tuesday’s 8 p.m. contest against Northwestern (6-18, 1-13) at Xfinity Center. The schedule features three road matchups — against No. 25 Ohio State, Minnesota and Rutgers — that could be difficult. So after the game against Michigan State, Cowan downplayed the significance and noted his team hasn’t won anything yet.
“You talk about a guy that doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Sometimes you wonder if he has a heartbeat. He’s just so calm out there and calm all the time. I think Anthony has the most to do with [instilling that mentality across the team] of anybody.”
Before his senior season, Cowan reiterated that he hoped to lead this team to a tangible accomplishment. He doesn’t want another good-but-not-great finish. Cowan, who has started all 124 games since he arrived on campus, has become fixated on leaving College Park with more than individual accolades.
When asked about longtime Maryland broadcaster Johnny Holliday earlier this season, Cowan started his answer by saying: “He’s got a ring. Every time I see him, I look at his ring first.”
That’s how deeply ingrained Cowan’s desire is. So of course after he willed Maryland to a win Saturday, he referenced that he doesn’t have a ring yet. But in those final few minutes against the Spartans, Cowan pushed his team further along the path that leads to a title, even though he is not willing to look that far yet.
On the three-pointers, “it was my teammates really setting me up and getting me open looks,” Cowan said. “All I had to do was knock it down.”
Michigan State had some rare defensive lapses. Rocket Watts guarded Cowan well for much of the game, but the freshman left Cowan in the corner to help in the lane. Darryl Morsell found Cowan, who hit the first of his late three-pointers to make it 60-59.
On the next possession, Watts again abandoned Cowan after Aaron Wiggins took a few steps toward the rim, and Wiggins passed to Cowan for the go-ahead bucket. Then, with 23 seconds to go, Cowan hit his third straight three-pointer, sealing the win.
Cowan found himself in favorable scenarios, but he still had to make the shots. Those are the moments when he seems to be at his best.
In December, he hit the tying three-pointer with 19 seconds to go at home against Illinois then later added the winning free throw. Cowan hit a late three at Indiana last month as the Terps climbed back to win. In the final three minutes of games this season, Cowan is shooting 10 for 16 (62.5 percent) from three-point range. Up until that point, he is shooting 31.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Michigan State had to foul after Winston missed a three-pointer with 11 seconds to go and Maryland leading 65-60. The Spartans sent Cowan to the foul line. As Michigan State fans headed for the exits, Cowan said later that he thought, “In my mind, there’s still some way that they’re going to come back and try to win the game.” So he refuses to enjoy the moment too early.
Cowan stepped to the free throw line and made both attempts. His threes will be remembered, but those free throws might be equally telling. Against Nebraska four days earlier, he had missed a late free throw, giving the Cornhuskers a chance to score a winning basket before Smith’s block rescued the Terps. In East Lansing, Cowan made all nine of his free throw attempts.
“He was really mad at himself for missing that free throw the other night,” Turgeon said. “And he’s been locked in since that game ended.”
During the Terps’ eight-game winning streak, Cowan has averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 assists while surging up Maryland’s all-time lists. With 1,790 career points, he moved past Keith Booth for ninth on Maryland’s scoring list. During his late burst, he became the fourth Maryland player to make 200 three-pointers.
As a senior, the even-keeled guard has become a more vocal leader. When Maryland led late at home against Iowa on Jan. 30, Turgeon remembered how Cowan was “barking about the things that I wanted him yelling at them about” during a timeout before the coaches joined the huddle. Earlier in his career, Cowan “wouldn’t have done that, wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that,” Turgeon said. “And he wouldn’t have been sure he was saying the right things. Now he’s confident he’s saying the right things.”
And he makes shots, too — the ones that matter most. In East Lansing, Turgeon told a story he has shared before: He explained to his team how, in high school, at St. John’s, Cowan was viewed by some as an Atlantic 10 Conference-caliber player, not someone who could lead a Big Ten team to success.
“He didn’t come in here as this guy that was supposed to be some all-American type player, and he’s made himself one, just by grit and determination,” Turgeon said. “I want the younger guys to know that.”
So Turgeon told his players that story again, mentioning that some critics thought he made a mistake when he brought Cowan to College Park. Then Turgeon asked, “Who was right, Ant?”
Read more from Post Sports: