With Anthony Cowan on the sideline, Maryland basketball showed it can hold its own

Guard Anthony Cowan takes the ball up court during Maryland men's basketball's 56-51 win over Rutgers on Feb. 4, 2020 in Xfinity Center. (Gabby Baniqued/The Diamondback)

Maryland men’s basketball broke its team huddle after the second-half under-16 media timeout, and five players returned to the floor.

Meanwhile, guard Anthony Cowan walked in the opposite direction, taking a seat on the bench after picking up his third foul right before the break — and right after the Terps had come back from a 14-point first-half deficit to take a 46-44 lead.

Without Cowan — the team’s top scorer and leader — Maryland not only protected its advantage, it extended the lead with a 7-2 spurt as he watched on from the sideline. It was the second time coach Mark Turgeon’s team stepped up without the services of Cowan, whose foul trouble also relegated him to the bench during an 8-4 Terps run in the final 2:55 of the first half.

Those two shifts without the senior guard helped No. 9 Maryland outlast then-No. 20 Illinois for a 75-66 road victory. But the showing — without their stalwart — also offered heightened confidence that the Terps can more than coast going forward when Cowan needs a break, be it for rest or foul trouble.

“I just think it gave us all confidence,” Turgeon said. “He picked up his third, and without hesitation it was no big deal [to] get Anthony. And guys just responded.”

[Read more: Maryland men’s basketball remains at No. 9 in latest AP poll]

Maryland doesn’t often play without Cowan, who’s tied for third in the Big Ten with 34.2 minutes per game. When Cowan is off the floor, it’s usually for short stints of rest.

But navigating foul trouble is different. If the Terps struggled, Turgeon would need to weigh the risk of the game getting away from his team versus the risk of Cowan nearing a permanent exit if he were to pick up his fourth foul.

Fortunately for the ninth-year coach, he wasn’t forced to make that decision. In the first half, guards Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins combined for eight points in his absence. And in the second half, Ayala, guard Darryl Morsell and forward Jalen Smith combined to score the team’s seven points without Cowan.

“We’re a relentless team. We always fight,” Smith said. “This team always does what we need to do when the time comes.”

[Read more: Maryland men’s basketball’s switch to zone defense stymied Illinois in comeback win]

Turgeon’s team was also prepared to click without Cowan because of its experiences in practice. With all the time he logs during games, coaches hold the senior out of periods of practice to conserve his energy.

Practicing without Cowan gives the coaches extra opportunities to build depth the team may need when tournament time arrives and there’s less recovery between games.

Starting with Nebraska on Tuesday night at Xfinity Center, the Terps have just eight regular-season games before the start of the conference tournament, where contests occur on consecutive days.

“We’re a couple pieces away from becoming a deeper team, and we’re working on that,” Turgeon said. “We’ve got to have that depth when that time comes late in the season.”

His teammates didn’t panic when he picked up his third foul against Illinois, but they did have a message for him.

“A couple guys told him ‘We need you to stop fouling, man,’” Wiggins recalled Monday. “He knows he has to be out there with us because he’s such an important piece to us.”

After delivering that message to Cowan, those same teammates delivered another: They can still be effective even without their longtime catalyst.

“Anthony’s a really big piece to us. But, I mean, we’ve got a lot of pieces as a team,” Wiggins said. “When one of our guys falls down, somebody else has to step up and be ready to go.”

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