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No. 15 Maryland men’s basketball is finally playing with confidence, and it shows

The Terps have been hot as of late and are playing their best ball of the season.

Maryland basketball bench celebration, Iowa, 2020 Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

No. 15 Maryland men’s basketball was holding onto a seven-point lead gainst No. 18 Iowa with over 14 minutes remaining Thursday night. After three Hawkeye offensive boards, Anthony Cowan Jr. took it upon himself to secure the ball, boxing out 6’9 forward Cordel Pemsl and grabbing the rebound.

The senior guard pushed the pace the other way until an Eric Ayala cross-court pass landed in the hands of Darryl Morsell, who looked to take advantage of the Terps’ 5-on-4 opportunity. The Baltimore guard took one dribble and then shoveled a no-look, one-handed pass to a cutting Aaron Wiggins, who finished the bucket while drawing the foul.

“Right after I got the bucket, I pointed at him,” Wiggins said after the game. “And I mimicked his pass, because I saw it coming.”

Such a pass is not sequence of events that one would have seen from the Terps 20 days prior when they played Iowa for the first time this season. But, recently, Maryland has created confidence within the team, propelling it to its first two road victories and its biggest win of the season Thursday night.

“We are moving the ball better, we’re sharing the ball better, more guys are playing smarter and better, so are we playing our best basketball? Probably,” head coach Mark Turgeon said after Iowa win. “But I just think there’s more in us.”

Darryl Morsell, Iowa, 2020 Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

This newfound confidence hasn’t always been there for the Terps this season. Maryland traveled to Newark, New Jersey, to meet Seton Hall — minus its two leading scorers in Myles Powell and Sandro Mamukelashvili — on Dec. 19. The Terps were favored, but their offense faltered, shooting just 27 percent from the floor while committing 17 turnovers. Cowan, Wiggins and Jalen Smith all scored in double digits, but not one Terp appeared to play with much poise.

“We’re not playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Turgeon said after the loss. “And I got to figure out a way to give our guys confidence, because we don’t even look like the same team we were three weeks ago.”

Just over three weeks later, Maryland faced Iowa for the first time and did not look like the same team that had just won its first matchup over a ranked opponent two days prior. The Terps played sloppy, turning the ball over 17 times once again, and unenthusiastic as they went through the motions in Iowa City.

That performance vanished for two games but seemed to reappear in Evanston, Illinois, when Maryland found itself trailing by 14 at halftime to a Northwestern team that’s best player was playing lacrosse last year.

At halftime of that game, Turgeon gave a speech and said he wanted his players to play “street ball,” which immediately received a positive response from the team and indicated to the head coach that Maryland had a shot to leave Evanston with a victory.

“That fired everybody up,” Smith said after the game. “Because everybody knows in street ball you’re just playing and not really worried about anything.”

The words resonated with Turgeon’s team as it scored nearly twice as many points as the Wildcats in the second half and secured its first true road victory of the season.

“It was one stepping stone to something bigger,” Ayala said Jan. 24. “We needed that break through. ...We’re going to Indiana with a little confidence, a little swagger.”

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Down by six with just under 1:30 remaining, the Terps never wavered at Assembly Hall. Most teams would crumble after giving up a 14-point lead in the second half with the Hoosier faithful criticizing their every mistake. But on the back of Smith, Maryland squared up and stole a victory in Bloomington against Indiana.

After the final buzzer, Smith — who had just finished with 29 points and 11 rebounds — uncharacteristically went towards center court and appeared to say “This is my court” to the packed Assembly Hall crowd. Turgeon immediately ran over after his star big man to stop his post-game actions, and both issued apologies afterwards.

But the Baltimore sophomore had a reason to be fired up, scoring 54 points and snagging 22 rebounds to nearly single-handedly secure the Terps’ first two road wins of the season.

“It’s a confidence, it’s a bravado thing for him. And it’s kind of good to see, he’s such a good kid,” Turgeon said about Smith’s emotional play. “There’s part of me that loves when he acts the way he gets excited and all that kind of stuff. ... I don’t want to take away the emotion and the enthusiasm that he needs to play with. He’s just got to channel it the right way.”

Maryland brought a three-game winning streak Thursday to an Xfinity Crowd that was filled with students who had just returned from winter break. And after facing so many barriers this season, everything seemed to finally come together for the Terps.

Wiggins, who has at times struggled with his shot this season and was held scoreless against the Hawkeyes in round one, was aggressive and unafraid to let his shot fly.

With the shot clock at three seconds and with over seven minutes remaining in the game, Cowan found Wiggins on a skip pass on the left side of the wing. There was no hesitation from the sophomore, who put his smooth stroke to work and knocked down a three-pointer over Joe Wieskamp to give the Terps their first double-digit lead of the night.

Anthony Cowan Jr., Iowa, 2020 Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

Cowan’s pass was one of his six assists of the night. He and Ayala have made a nice pair in Maryland’s front court the past three games, accounting for 29 assists and only five turnovers in 202 minutes of combined play. What once was an Achilles’ heel for Turgeon’s squad has seem to be conquered due to the ball distribution and patient play from Ayala and Cowan. And as a team, the Terps are averaging just 6.33 turnovers in that span.

Overall, though, Maryland’s spacing has been a lot better. Cowan and Smith will always provide firepower for the Terps, but the team’s ball movement has placed others in successful positions. In the past four games during its winning streak, Maryland has had 14 or more assists in every contest.

The Terps have faced many potholes on their road this season, including the departure of the Mitchell twins, bad losses on the road, morale concerns and the loss of one of their heroes in Kobe Bryant. But midway through Big Ten play in a conference with no easy wins, Maryland’s confidence is growing and it feels as if the team kicked it into another gear Thursday night.

“I’d definitely say most of our teammates probably feel as if though we’re playing really good basketball compared to where we were early in the season,” Wiggins said after Iowa. “We’re just playing like a different team in every aspect.”