“We gotta be better”: Maryland men’s basketball looks to learn from lackluster first half

Guard Anthony Cowan drives into the lane in Maryland men's basketball's 59-58 win over Illinois on Dec. 7, 2019. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

By the time Maryland men’s basketball guard Anthony Cowan reached the Terps’ locker room after a dramatic 59-58 victory over Illinois, he had already been showered in congratulations and MVP chants from the fans.

But in the locker room, the senior wasn’t focused on his game-tying 3-pointer from the “Gary Williams Court” script. He didn’t boast about his steal with under five seconds remaining. And he wasn’t parading around the game-winning free throw that finally pushed Maryland ahead to complete a 15-point comeback.

Instead even after all of his heroics Cowan was fixated on the reason he and his team eve even needed to climb out of that 15-point deficit in the team’s Big Ten opener, and he was sure to address it following the game.

“Anthony said it best,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “He said, ‘Guys, we can’t approach a game like the way we approached today.’”

[Read more: “A Christmas miracle”: Maryland men’s basketball needed clutch plays to remain undefeated]

Turgeon said his team had a “terrible” shootaround before the game, and that effort persisted into the start. Maryland had an early 3-2 lead for all of 25 seconds before watching the Fighting Illini rattle off 16 of the game’s next 18 points to claim an 18-5 lead.

Maryland is no stranger to needing to overcome slow starts and early holes. The Terps entered Saturday’s game with an unblemished record, despite trailing after the first 10 minutes in six of their nine games.

But double-digit halftime deficits were a foreign concept to this Maryland squad. In prior slow starts, the Terps would find their rhythm in the first half and either took a lead or pulled within a manageable single-digit distance with their largest halftime deficit being five against Temple.

In the Big Ten opener, though, Maryland struggled. Fighting Illini guard Andres Feliz’s late layup consigned the Terps to a 14-point deficit at halftime.

“Just lack of effort,” Turgeon said. “By far our worst half of the year.”

[Read more: Anthony Cowan’s late heroics propel No. 3 Maryland basketball to 59-58 win over Illinois]

Staring down a home loss to an unranked team in the first game of its conference slate, Maryland relied on its defense to slow down Illinois’ pace while the Terps’ offense continued to find only sporadic success.

After forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili converted a layup with 12:30 to play, everything became difficult for Illinois. The Fighting Illini hit just 2-14 in that stretch.

“Just locking in. Making sure that we are executing properly,” forward Jalen Smith said of the renewed defensive effort. “Making sure we’re playing by defensive principles.”

With each defensive stop, the announced crowd of 16,690 at the Xfinity Center seemed to grow louder and more confident the Terps could pull off a comeback.

Smith’s 3-pointer with 2:36 to play pulled Maryland within two possessions. Forward Donta Scott followed up with a layup 50 seconds later, setting the stage for Cowan’s late-game takeover.

The Bowie native’s free throw with 2.1 seconds to play gave the Terps a 59-58 victory in a game they led for only 27 seconds.

“Just a building stone. Focusing on what we gotta do better,” Smith said. “We was losing most of the whole game, and we don’t really want to be in that position no more.”

Cowan, again, stepped to the forefront when his team needed him most. The senior scored 14 second-half points to lead the comeback, reminiscent of two narrow victories over Temple and Harvard in the Orlando Invitational when Cowan carried his team to the finish line with two sizable second-half scoring efforts.

The team’s leader called Saturday’s a result “a good win,” but he wasn’t satisfied. Cowan knows that if this team is to achieve its championship aspirations, Saturday’s effort won’t suffice.

“The message was, ‘We’ve got to be better.’ We obviously didn’t play our best game. We’re here to win a championship,” Cowan said. “We just didn’t play up to our ability, and we need that if our goal is to win a championship.”

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