Between the Baselines: Clutch shot-making and defensive intensity guide Maryland basketball to gutsy win over Illinois

All-American players are expected to make clutch plays in the biggest moments. That’s exactly what guard Anthony Cowan Jr. did Saturday night. Trailing by three with time running out on a broken play, the senior guard rose up from 30 feet and drilled the game tying triple — sending the Xfinity Center crowd into raptures. 

“Right when [Cowan] shot it, I knew it looked perfect,” head coach Mark Turgeon said about Cowan’s game tying shot. I knew it was in and that’s just kind of what he does.”

On the ensuing defensive possession, Cowan snatched the ball from Andres Feliz and drew a foul. With Maryland in the bonus, Cowan headed to the line, making the first free throw and missing the second on purpose — giving Maryland a 59-58 lead with 2.1 seconds remaining. It was only their second lead of the game, a contest in which the Terps only led for a combined 27 seconds. Still, Cowan’s late game heroics put Maryland over the edge in a decisive 59-58 win, despite Illinois being the better team for a large majority of the game.

“It’s kind of a miracle win, we weren’t very good,” Turgeon said postgame. “I wasn’t very good. We weren’t ready to play, and they were.”

A few minutes earlier, Jalen Smith canned a three that cut the Illinois lead to 68-64, presenting another opportunity for the Xfinity Crowd to get energized. Smith’s three offered another glimpse of his growth and his ability to deliver in clutch moments.

“I guess it’s just my mentality, it’s evolved since my freshman year,” Smith said of his ability to perform in the clutch. “Just making sure I’m doing whatever I can to help my team win at that point.”

Illinois entered the game with a very similar style to Maryland, a team that loves to push the pace with very fast guards. In addition to their speed, the Illini are extremely physical and one of the best rebounding teams in the country, entering Saturday’s matchup with a +17.1-rebounding margin. The tandem of Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili down low is one of the best and most physically imposing in the Big Ten. 

Their size and physicality gave the Terps troubles in the first half. Cockburn got going early, with a couple of easy layups rolling off high-ball screens, making Maryland pay for not switching quick enough. While Cockburn established himself down low, the Illini guards gave Maryland trouble with their speed and quick-decision making. Illinois moved the ball seamlessly on their offensive possessions in the first half, demonstrating both quickness and smart decision-making.

Compounding their defensive issues, Maryland also struggled to score, shooting 30% overall and 21% from behind the arc. The Terps missed some open shots, but the Fighting Illini were faster and more physical in the first half, with quick defensive rotations and stifling low-post defense. 25 first half points was a season low for Maryland — and their 14-point deficit was also the Terps largest of the season.

However, in the second half, Maryland came out with ramped up energy and a heightened defensive intensity that allowed them to slowly chip away at the lead. Maryland’s increased energy was in large part due to the raucous Xfinity Center Crowd that spent much of the second half on their feet.

“The crowd they actually helped us, they picked us up when we were down and pushed us,” freshman Donta Scott said.

That increased defensive intensity was most evident in the final five minutes, when Illinois went without a field goal. Maryland’s defensive rotations and communication improved, making it tough for the Fighting Illini to generate good looks. 

On several possessions down the stretch, the Illini turned to Bezhanishvili. However, Smith was up to the task, playing tenacious low-post defense, forcing tough shots and drawing several offensive fouls. Smith tallied three blocks and finished with his sixth double-double of the season.

“That kid is a man, Giorgi is really good,” Turgeon said. “[Smith] held his own, used his length on him, I think he blocked three shots and probably altered another seven or eight.”

Maryland will need to improve in all facets of the game moving forward with another tough test on the road in State College against Penn State on Tuesday.