Anthony Cowan Jr. is the unquestioned leader of Maryland basketball on both ends of the floor, despite his quiet and calm demeanor. With 8:46 remaining in the first half, Cowan picked up his second foul on a three-point attempt by Jamal Hartwell II. The foul signified a mental error committed by a veteran who rarely makes the, a common theme early on Friday.
“We weren’t mentally ready, we were making mental mistakes the first 12 minutes of the game to allow them to keep the lead,” head coach Mark Turgeon said.
At that moment, Turgeon had a decision to make: take out his leader for the remainder of the half or trust his most experienced player. Turgeon chose the latter, and the decision was pivotal to Maryland’s 12-point halftime lead, and its ability to coast to an 86-63 win over George Mason. Cowan had nine of his team-high 16 points after picking up the second foul.
“Yeah I was little bit nervous, but he’s a veteran-guy,” Turgeon said on the decision to keep Cowan in the game. “He’s a pretty smart player, I thought he really played well, I got confidence in him.”
Trailing by three with 5:02 remaining in the first half, Cowan lined up a three-point shot from straight-on, and buried it with confidence. On the ensuing offensive possession, Cowan drove aggressively into contact, drawing a foul and finishing the layup off the glass, completing a three-point play.
“I just took what the defense gave me, I kind of got hot a little bit, just wanted to be more aggressive,” Cowan said describing the six-point burst.”
The three-point play give Maryland a 32-29 lead and served as the catalyst for their 19-2 run to close out the final six minutes of the first half. During that run, the Terps attacked the basket at will, highlighted by smart decision-making.
“I think it was definitely the spacing, we went into like a complete spread offense where we just had the court open,” Aaron Wiggins said describing the offensive efficiency during the run. “We went with a ball screen from [Jalen Smith], [Eric Ayala] and [Cowan Jr.] coming off the ball screen attacking the paint either finishing or kicking out for threes.”
Jalen Smith epitomized these smart decisions, on consecutive possessions during the run. First, Smith took what the defense gave him, knocking down a 15-foot jumper. On the next possession, Smith executed a perfect shot fake and drove hard to the basket completing a three-point play. Not only did both possessions symbolize smart decision-making, but they also highlighted his growth from freshman to sophomore year.
“I guess it says my maturity is building, because even last year I would’ve missed the shot, or I would’ve gotten the ball frustrated and it would affect my game in the long run,” Smith said. “It didn’t, so I just continued to focus on defense and my offense will build up.”
The second half was a struggle for both teams offensively, but Maryland’s success at the free throw line was pivotal in extending the lead. The Terps shot 19-of-25 in the second half and 30-of-38 overall, a significant improvement from their first four games. Freshman Makhi Mitchell, in his strongest performance of the season, used his size to get good low-post position and converted on 8-of-12 free throw opportunities at the line.
“That was a big improvement, now we’re working on it,” Turgeon said about free-throw shooting. “Makhi was probably the biggest, he made his first six, that was big for us him making them.”
Maryland will need to maintain that same offensive aggressiveness with the schedule ramping up, beginning with the first round of the Orlando Invitational against Temple on Thanksgiving.