EAST LANSING, Mich. — For the second time in under a minute, all Rocket Watts could do was throw his hands up in frustration.
The Michigan State guard had allotted Anthony Cowan a minuscule amount of space on the outside, but that’s all it took for the Maryland men’s basketball senior to change the game. So Cowan pulled up both times, and both times he knocked down crippling 3-pointers — the first to give the Terps a lead once more and the second to ice the contest with 23 seconds remaining.
Maryland had led by as many as 15, although Michigan State whittled that down and eventually took a lead of its own. But in Cowan’s last visit to the Breslin Center, his final two shots ensured the No. 9 Terps remained in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with a 67-60 victory over the Spartans.
“We’ve got some tough guys, starting with Anthony Cowan,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s as tough as they come, pound-for-pound.”
Cowan, who finished with a game-high 24 points, scored 11 straight to finish the game, including three triples and two free throws to extend his team’s winning streak to eight. He ended the game as he started it.
Michigan State (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten) has the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year in guard Cassius Winston, but it was Cowan who took over in the early stages of the game.
Cowan said all the right things Friday when previewing his matchup against Winston, the latest installment in a saga that has extended over the two players’ four-year careers. Cowan called him a “competitor” and “another really good guard in the league,” but the Bowie native seemingly wanted to prove himself against Winston.
Winston hit an early 3-pointer to help the Spartans take an early 5-0 lead before Cowan willed his team out of a tepid start. The senior leader knocked down back-to-back shots from beyond the arc, then followed with a pair of free throws to swing the lead in Maryland’s favor.
That stretch represented Cowan’s emphatic response from missing a pivotal free throw that nearly cost his team a home victory Tuesday night against Nebraska.
“He was really mad at himself for missing that free throw,” Turgeon said. “He’s been locked in since that game ended. … You could see he was locked in. He was locked in early, kind of helped us weather the storm early.”
The Terps (21-4, 11-3 Big Ten) never relinquished that advantage in the first half and extended their lead to as many as 15 points behind the play of Cowan and Eric Ayala.
Ayala took control for just over a one-minute stretch, hitting two layups before knocking down a 3-pointer to push Maryland’s lead to double-digits.
The advantage escalated to 15 when freshman forward Donta Scott knocked down a corner 3-pointer with just under three minutes left in the first half.
For as quickly as the air left the Breslin Center when Scott’s triple swished through the net, Michigan State renewed the energy just as fast. The Spartans reeled off seven straight points in the final two and a half minutes to cut the Terps’ lead to 39-31 at the break.
That momentum persisted into the second half, and the 7-0 run grew to a 20-6 stretch that brought the Spartans within a point with 12 minutes remaining in the contest.
“We had to stay into it,” Cowan said. “We knew they was going to make a run.”
With seven and a half minutes to play, Michigan State used back-to-back threes from forward Kyle Ahrens and Winston to break through and take its first lead since early in the opening period.
Aside from forward Jalen Smith, Maryland’s offensive struggles continued into the late stages of the second half. Smith scored 10 of the team’s first 14 points in the second half, while the rest of the team shot just 5-of-18.
“When he’s on the court, he’s always a force you’ve got to deal with,” Cowan said of Smith. “He was huge for us, able to score some big buckets down the second half.”
The Spartans threatened to pull away, building a seven-point lead with 3:24 to play. But it was once again Smith playing the role of second-half savior.
The forward spotted up for a 3-pointer that found the bottom of the net and revived the Terps’ offense. On the next possession, Cowan took the reins, receiving a pass in the corner and draining another three — the first of three straight for the senior.
“He can hit any shot,” Smith said. “He just has that … second-half blood in him.”
After securing the victory, Cowan was asked if he takes matchups against Winston — who finished with 14 points — and other highly touted guards personally. With the measured approach of an experienced senior, he paused for a few seconds and struggled to hold back a grin.
“Next question,” Cowan said through a wry smile.
If his facial expression didn’t reveal his answer to that question, his personal 11-0 run over the last 2:24 to close out the Spartans surely did.