CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon was still shaking his head as he walked out of the media elevator in the bowels of State Farm Arena on Sunday night, bewildered that his team somehow managed to escape with a 92-91 overtime win over Illinois. He ran his hand along the cinder block walls as he walked back to his locker room.
“I’m exhausted,” he said at one point. “Anthony Cowan. Holy smokes.”
Less than a half-hour earlier, Cowan, the sophomore point guard who has emerged as the team’s foremost facilitator and also its primary scorer, hit the winning free throw with less than a second remaining to secure the win. Maryland also needed a game-tying tip-in from freshman Bruno Fernando with less than one second remaining at the end of regulation just to get to overtime, which came after the Terrapins wasted a 22-point second-half lead. It had the potential to be the worst meltdown in Turgeon’s seven seasons in College Park.
“This is a group that never quits,” said Cowan, who finished with a career-high 27 points and acknowledged afterward that Maryland was forced to play with desperation. The Terrapins had suffered two-point losses to St. Bonaventure and Syracuse within the past 10 days, and after a crushing 80-75 loss to Purdue at home in the Big Ten opener last Friday, another setback on Sunday would’ve left Maryland (7-3, 1-1 Big Ten) stewing with an 0-2 mark for the rest of December before league play resumes after New Year’s.
But while Sunday’s near-collapse illustrated Maryland’s resolve amid another stressful finish – the Terrapins have played in five games decided by five points or less this season – it also underscored a rash of issues. Maryland entered the night with the worst turnover margin in the Big Ten and it committed 25 more against the Fighting Illini, something that both Cowan and sophomore Justin Jackson maintain is symptomatic of a team that is still coalescing.
“You can’t win when you have a lot of turnovers, so that’s something we’re really working on as a team,” said Jackson, who finished with a season-high 20 points. “We’re still getting used to each other. Chemistry is still growing every game. It’s still early, so we still have time to improve it.”
Jackson’s performance was one of the promising developments Sunday night. He was expected to carry the scoring load this season after nearly declaring for the NBA draft last spring, but through 10 games, that role has belonged to Cowan (16.5 points per game). Jackson entered the night having shot just 33 percent from the field this year – including 22 percent on three-point attempts – but he calmed down Sunday, even after committing a turnover and a foul with just more than 13 minutes remaining. Turgeon benched him right away, but not to berate him. “Next play, JJ, next play,” he told him, and Jackson listened. He committed no turnovers the rest of the way and made an NBA-caliber move with 76 seconds left in overtime, creating his own shot on a pull-up jumper in the lane that gave Maryland a brief lead.
“That was vintage Justin Jackson,” Turgeon said later.
While Turgeon has trumpeted this team’s depth, he shortened his bench considerably Sunday and played each of his sophomore starters – Cowan, Jackson and Kevin Huerter (17 points) – more than 40 minutes. Like a year ago, when all three averaged more than 27 minutes per game, it is clear that Turgeon isn’t afraid to increase the workload of the sophomores. He also is leaning heavily on the contributions of freshmen Darryl Morsell and Fernando – Maryland’s average experience is just 1.2 years, which ranks 318th out of 351 teams in Division I, according to the analytics site kenpom.com – and both of those players are continuing to adjust to the college game.
Morsell, who went 3 for 16 from the field in the loss to Purdue, finished with five points and seven rebounds Sunday but also had three turnovers in 24 minutes; Fernando played through foul trouble in his 23 minutes and slapped the floor violently with his right hand after one of his two turnovers, later using that hand to gently tip in the ball for the tying basket with one-tenth of a second remaining in regulation.
“Losing hurts. That’s one thing we got tired of,” Fernando said. “We got tired of going into the locker room and not having any words to say.”
Maryland’s players had plenty to say in the locker room Sunday. So did Turgeon, who emerged after changing out of his suit and yelled down the hall at Jackson. “Yeah Justin!” he screamed. He took solace in what Maryland had gained by averting potential disaster: Jackson pulled himself out of a slump, and Cowan announced himself as a potential go-to closer late in games.
Turgeon also recognized the ongoing issues. He said he’s “not concerned” about the turnover problems, noting that his team won’t face another pressure defense of Illinois’s caliber for the rest of Big Ten play. He also didn’t shy away from the fact that his team is still searching for an identity, with players still settling into roles. By January, when the compressed schedule resumes, Maryland only can hope that no longer will be the case. Sunday marked the first of three times it will play on one day rest; it also will play on two-day rest six different times the rest of the way.
“We’re still a young team. We played two freshmen and three sophomores almost the whole game,” Turgeon said. “So we’re still growing.”