EAST LANSING, Mich. — Down 60-59 with 1:43 left, Anthony Cowan Jr. calmly took the ball up the court. No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball had seen its 15-point lead against Michigan State evaporate into thin air, but the game wasn’t over just yet.
On a pass from Aaron Wiggins 20 seconds later, Cowan caught the ball on the left wing, set his feet and fired a deep three-pointer, holding his shot as the ball hit nothing but net and swished through the twine to retake the lead for the Terps.
Less than a minute later and the shot clock winding down, Cowan pulled up for another three, this time at the top of the key. As he’s done so many times this year, the senior guard watched as his game-icing shot pushed Maryland’s lead to 65-60 with 23 seconds remaining.
The Terps blew a colossal lead at the Breslin Center Saturday night, but they pulled it together in the final minutes to pull away with a 67-60 win over the Spartans — their first win in East Lansing since 2014.
“My job is to get my team in the best position to win at the end of the day,” Cowan said. “If I’m doing that, I’m doing my job. So I just gotta keep doing that.”
Maryland got out to its 15-point advantage after Eric Ayala, coming off his best performance of the season last time out against Nebraska, took over just past midway through the opening period.
Ayala used a Jalen Smith screen with 6:38 left to get by Cassius Winston on his way to the rim, beating a pair of Spartans defenders to the rim for a left-handed finish. On the next possession, he blocked a three-pointer in the corner before catching a pass in transition, using a hesitation move to loft a layup over Winston for another point-blank basket.
On Maryland’s next offensive trip, Ayala slowly took the ball up, waiting for another Smith screen to create a mismatch. The obstruction switched Tillman onto Ayala, and the latter broke the former down on the dribble before draining a triple, giving the Terps a 33-22 lead — their largest of the game to that point.
“That’s the normal Eric I always see. Eric can take over at any point in time,” Smith said. “He just has a lot of confidence right now. We’re helping with that, and he’s just playing amazing right now.”
Holding a 39-24 lead with under three minutes to play, Maryland just needed to get to halftime without too much bleeding. Smith had been out of the game for a bit with two fouls, and the Terps were hoping to tread water with Ricky Lindo Jr. and Joshua Tomaic splitting time at center.
But Michigan State finally broke through to close out the opening period. Forward Thomas Kithier made his way to the rack for a layup with 2:31 left, ending a three-plus-minute stretch without a made field goal. And after the Spartans went 3-of-4 from the line with just over a minute left, Tillman beat Tomaic inside for a layup with 32 seconds remaining.
The Terps didn’t score for the final 2:56 of the first half, allowing Michigan State to close on a seven-point run to cut the lead to 39-31 at halftime.
“We were just rushing, doing a lot of stuff that we don’t normally do,” Smith said. “And we just had to get back in our composure and just make sure that we finish off the game strong.”
Maryland’s woes didn’t disappear after the break — in fact, they only got worse. After Cowan missed a layup with 19:07 left, Kithier got the rebound and pushed the ball to Winston.
The senior passed to Aaron Henry down the left sideline, and the sophomore threw down a wicked left-handed slam, causing the Breslin Center to erupt and Turgeon to call timeout.
But the discussion didn’t do much to reverse the tides. Smith scored the next basket of the game over a minute later, but the Spartans responded with a 9-2 run to cut their deficit to just 43-42 with 13:49 left.
With 8:07 to go down 51-48, Smith came out from under the basket to stop Xavier Tillman’s dribble. His vacating of the paint opened up a passing lane, and Tillman fired a pass inside to Thomas Kithier under the rim.
The sophomore forward quickly abandoned any thoughts of going up with the ball, instead passing out to the corner to find an open Kyle Ahrens, who caught and fired a three over the outstretched arms of Aaron Wiggins. The ball fell through the twine, tying the score for the first time since the start of the game.
And after an Ayala miss, Winston raced up the court before pulling up for a triple of his own. His too found the bottom of the net, giving the Spartans their first lead since there were 17 minutes left in the first half.
Falling behind by its largest margin of the game finally forced Maryland’s offense to wake up in the closing minutes. The Terps scored six straight on a pair of three-pointers, one from Smith and another from Cowan.
And if that wasn’t enough, Cowan hit two more triples in a row to retake the lead for Maryland and ultimately leave East Lansing with a victory. Michigan State didn’t score for the final three-plus minutes of the night.
“He’s just a winner. He does what he has to do to for us to win the game,” Turgeon said of Cowan.
Three things to know
1. The Terps have their longest-ever winning streak in Big Ten play. With the win in East Lansing, Maryland’s win streak now improves to eight — its longest since joining the conference in 2014-15. The Terps had lost three straight — and seven of eight — to Michigan State entering play, but they were able to head home with a victory.
“Whenever you come into this building — which is one of the best buildings in the country — and beat one of the best coaches of the generation, it’s exciting. And the way we did it was fun,” Turgeon said. “We just stopped listening to all the noise and now we just believe in ourselves.”
2. Maryland won on the boards. Last time out against Nebraska, the Terps had one of their poorer rebounding performances of the season. Despite ultimately winning the battle, 35-34, Maryland should’ve run away with it — the Cornhuskers entered as the third-worst team in the nation on the glass.
Against the Spartans — the 10th-best — the Terps had no issues securing an advantage. Tillman, a 10.2 rebound-per-game player, got his, grabbing 11. But as a team, Maryland pulled away, securing 35 rebounds to the Spartans’ 34.
3. Anthony Cowan Jr. continues to rise up the ranks. Entering play, Cowan sat in 10th place all-time in the Maryland scoring list with 1,763 points for his Terps career. He needed just 11 to pass Keith Booth (1993-97) for ninth, and against the Spartans, Cowan did just that — and it took less than 10 minutes to accomplish the feat.
By the 10:27 mark of the first half, Cowan surpassed Booth at the free-throw line, needing just three field goal attempts to hit 11 points. On the night, the senior point guard finished with 24 points on 5-of-11 shooting — 5-of-9 from three.