As the Maryland men’s basketball team held off American, 62-56, in its season opener Friday night, the players in the game during the final minutes were those coach Mark Turgeon said were playing the best.
That lineup consisted of guard Melo Trimble, a graduate transfer and three freshmen.
“I looked out and there was four newcomers on the floor and Melo,” Turgeon said after the game. “I was like ‘Hey, I must really believe in this group.'”
Trimble led all scorers with 22 points, but each of the other four starters — freshmen Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson and senior L.G. Gill — made contributions throughout the Terps first regular season win that warranted their inclusion on the court in the game’s final moments.
“I knew those guys could do it,” Trimble said. “It’s the first game of the season, so I know next game they’ll be more poised and more relaxed.”
Forward L.G. Gill understood the anxiousness players Cowan, Huerter and Jackson had before competing in their first career college game. In his final season, the Duquesne transfer gets that feeling before every contest. To help the first-year players, Gill said the coaching staff has encouraged them in practice with the hopes that confidence will carry over into games.
Huerter and Cowan’s performances leading up to Friday’s game prompted Turgeon to start the duo in the backcourt along with Trimble. They were playing the best among the team’s guards, the sixth-year coach said, and both players showed glimpses of their potential against American.
Cowan’s 12 points were second on the team behind Trimble. The 6-foot guard also grabbed a team-high nine rebounds and shot 5-for-6 from the foul line in 27 minutes.
Turgeon commended Cowan’s ability to make a defensive impact, which the Bowie native showed towards the end of the first half. With the Terps down, 23-18, and about four minutes to go, Cowan hit a 3-pointer and knocked down two free throws to tie the game. He made a steal on the Eagles next possession, taking the ball the length of the court for a layup plus the foul to ignite Maryland before the break.
“He’s a very aggressive defender as you saw out there [Friday],” Trimble said.
Huerter, meanwhile, drew praise from the veteran coach for his work on sophomore forward Delante Jones, a member of the preseason All-Patriot team who shot 4-for-11 in 29 minutes.
On the offensive end, the Terps knew the 6-foot-5 forward could make shots. And despite shooting 2 of 6 from the field, Huerter’s makes came from behind the arc in the latter part of the second half.
“When I looked down the bench, it wasn’t like there was an assistant was yelling in my ear, ‘Take the young guys out,'” Turgeon said. “I never heard that, so we all kind of felt the same way.”
Turgeon also started guard Jared Nickens and forward Damonte Dodd, but the players combined to score three points in 26 minutes.
Gill and Jackson, the duo that ended the game, proved much more effective in their first regular season game in front of the Xfinity Center crowd. Jackson made one basket but grabbed nine rebounds in 26 minutes, a performance during which Turgeon said the four-star recruit from Canada found his rhythm in the second half. Gill was the team’s third leading scorer and hit seven of his eight foul shots. Half of those freebies came in the final five minutes to keep the Terps slightly ahead.
Gill said he’s seen the freshmen and himself make daily strides in practice, whether it’s learning how to play together or adjusting to the Terps system.
And based on whom Turgeon put on the court late in the game Friday, it appears the coach trusts the newcomers to work through their mistakes with the game on the line, too.
“It’s definitely tough, but I think we’re doing a great job,” Gill said. “Out there, you could see that things got a little bit antsy. But we’re still starting to figure out how to play with each other.”