For a moment, Illinois looked to be on the verge of pulling off an upset on Saturday, as the team held a 15-point lead over third-ranked Maryland in the Big Ten opener. Suddenly, momentum shifted during the final three minutes in College Park when Jalen Smith knocked down a three pointer, which was followed by Donta Scott’s layup that closed the gap and gave Terps’ fans a reason to believe.
As Maryland trailed by three points with 29 seconds remaining in regulation, point guard Anthony Cowan turned a broken down play into his shining moment by drilling a game-tying three pointer from the Gary Williams logo on the side of the court. Illinois tried to make something happen at the other end, but Cowan stole the ball, drew a foul, and converted a free throw to secure a 59-58 victory.
“Anthony was just Anthony,” Maryland Head Coach Mark Turgeon said. “When he made the shot I was like okay we’re going to overtime. That felt pretty good. And then we got the steal and they fouled him.”
Maryland has made turning slow starts into victories a common theme this season, but for the longest time that trend appeared to be coming to an end. The Fighting Illini jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first half and their defense had Maryland looking lost offensively.
Luckily for the Terps, their defense was able to hold Illinois long enough to stage a comeback.
“It was as I would classify, just a good hard fought Big Ten basketball game,” Illinois Head Coach Brad Underwood said. “It wasn’t very pretty. Both teams struggled offensively, but that’s what happens when you get two very good defensive teams.”
Turgeon has relied heavily on his team’s depth and ability to rotate players without skipping a beat. That wasn’t the case against Illinois, as Maryland’s bench was only able to come up with two points.
“We weren’t very good today,” Turgeon said. “We were really selfish, over dribbling, taking some bad shots, trying to play hero ball [and] trying to be the guy that gets us going. We’re real lucky to to be 1-0 in the league.”
Playing five games in nine days obviously took a toll on Maryland. Yet, this team was able to figure out a way to become 10-0 for the first time since 1998 and add more validation to being a title contender.
“This is not a team that’s just gonna go away lightly,” Cowan said. “The whole game we were talking about that we just gotta go on a run, and luckily we did late. We were able to get some stops, and we were able to pull it out.”
With 28 scouts from 18 different NBA teams, Smith made a strong case to move up in the draft boards, as he posted his sixth double-double, 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.
“He’s playing terrific for us,” Turgeon said. “I’m glad we have him. He’s played terrific on defense, especially late in the game.”
Cowan finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals after starting the game 0-6. Cowan’s second half performance, which showcased his leadership and ability to deliver down the stretch, resembled some of the Maryland guards that came before him.
“Anthony is an animal,” Smith said. “He always plays the game well, he is always leading us, always making shots when it counts and even when it doesn’t count, but he just plays hard and is the leader we need.”