CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With under 17 minutes remaining, Anthony Cowan Jr. dribbled the ball at the top of the arc, surveying his options as he tried to give No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball some life against No. 20 Illinois. The senior guard threw a lob pass down low to Jalen Smith, who scored a layup with one outstretched hand to tie the game at 44-44.
On the following possession, Donta Scott and Darryl Morsell double-teamed Giorgi Bezhanishvili, forcing the big man to lose control of the ball. The Terps appeared to slow things down, handing back the ball to Cowan, but the senior guard rocketed a pass across the full length of the court to Smith, who threw down a slam with ease to give Maryland a two-point lead.
The sequence started a 13-2 run for Maryland as the team locked down on defense, forcing Illinois to miss its first 12 shots and shoot 25.9 percent from the floor in the second half, en route to a 75-66 victory.
With the win, which is the Terps’ first against a top-20 team on the road since Jan. 19, 2008, Mark Turgeon’s squad has sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings.
“[This win] shows our resilience, it shows our toughness,” sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins said. “This is a really tough conference, and it’s tough to win on the road. But we came in, we took care of business.
“So it was really big for us, because it’s not anything we never expected. We expected to be at the top of the charts looking at the Big 10 conference. And when we go out, we play our game plan and we execute plays, we get the results we want. And that’s what we saw today.”
For most of the first half though, the Terps struggled tremendously to guard the Fighting Illini.
After the two teams went back and forth for the first few minutes of the contest, Illinois got hot from the field going on a 13-0 run over 2:08.
With 15:10 left in the first half, Bezhanishvili passed the ball to Da’Monte Williams on the right wing, who drained his second three-pointer of the night to cap off a the run over and put his team up 17-7.
Throughout the season, Maryland relied on its defense when the offense simply couldn’t get going, but that wasn’t the case for much of the first half Friday night. The Fighting Illini were having their way behind the arc and around the basket as the Terps found themselves in a big hole on the backs of their man-to-man defense.
Maryland went down as much as 29-15 with 11:07 left in the half after a questionable technical call on the bench after arguments on a foul not being called. But after that, the team found its groove.
But down 31-19 with 8:35 remaining in the half, Turgeon changed things up with a full-court press and zone defense that allowed his team to get back into it.
The Terps put the pressure on an Illinois inbounds play, forcing Williams to make a risky pass. Morsell leapt into the air to intercept the ball, starting a crucial fast break. The junior guard sprinted down the court and sent a perfectly place bounce pass to Scott, who scored a layup to cut the deficit to 10.
Maryland then forced two consecutive Fighting Illini misses from the floor, also quickly forcing another turnover. And as it has all season, the offense fed off the defense to put the Terps back in their groove.
“The zone changed it for us, got us back in the game. We started to make some shots. It gave us confidence,” Turgeon said. “It was good. They lost their rhythm and we were able to slow them down a little bit.”
Thanks to its resurgence, which included outscoring the Illini 21-11 after switching up the defense, Maryland entered halftime down just 42-40 and fully back in the game.
But after the Terps’ used the 13-2 run to build a 53-44 lead over the Fighting Illini, it once again became a closely contested contest.
“We get comfortable when we get down a little bit. We’re kind of used to it a little bit,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said. “I don’t think we get rattled when we get down, I think it;s, ‘Okay, come on y’all. Let’s go.’ Everybody just rallied behind each other.”
Illinois found its footing after being forced into offensive struggles early on after the break, going on a 7-0 run to make it a 53-52 ball game with 8:44 remaining.
But it was an unexpected presence that allowed Maryland to reestablish its lead. After struggling behind the arc throughout the season and not scoring at all last time out against Rutgers, Ayala drained two three-pointers in less than three minutes, with his second putting the Terps up 62-56.
The sophomore finished the game with 12 points, five rebounds and three assists.
And as he has countless times before — including a three-pointer in the final seconds the first time around against Illinois — Cowan came up with a crucial play for Maryland that carried the team to its win this season.
With 2:34 left to play and his team up 66-60, the senior guard fired a three-pointer over the outstretched arms of his defender, giving Maryland a nine-point lead that the Fighting Illini couldn’t ever come back from.
But this team still wants more, with hopes of going deep in March heavy on its mind.
“We got a lot of work to do,” Cowan said. “This is a great win, but everybody knows it’s a long season and we have a lot more to do.”
Three things to know
1. Anthony Cowan Jr. once again moves up the leaderboard. The senior guard moved up two spots on Maryland’s all-time scoring list Friday night. With his 20 points, Cowan passed Terence Morris and Johnny Rhodes to crack the top-10 and truly cement his legacy in program history.
Cowan also had six assists, four rebounds and a steal in the victory.
2. Maryland has three consecutive victories on the road. After starting off winless in true road games in four tries — falling at Penn State, Seton Hall, Iowa and Wisconsin — the Terps have flipped a switch. After picking up two straight wins against Northwestern and Indiana, Maryland was able to make it three straight away from Xfinity Center.
3. The Terps limited Kofi Cockburn. Entering into the top-20 matchup, the freshman center was averaging 14 points and 9.2 boards. But Maryland — especially Smith and Scott — limited to Cockburn to only nine points on 1-of-5 shooting and only four rebounds. Seven of the Kingston, Jamaica, native’s points came from the free-throw line.