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No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball will go as far as Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith take it

The duo’s worst games coincided Sunday in Columbus, and it spelled trouble for the Terps.

Anthony Cowan Jr, at Ohio State, 2020 Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

With just over five minutes remaining, then-No. 7 Maryland men’s basketball had completed a 7-2 run to put itself back into the game with then-No. 25 Ohio State.

As his team was down 55-60, Anthony Cowan Jr. came off a screen from Jalen Smith and was doubled, leading to the senior guard to pass the ball to his sophomore big at the top of the key.

Instead of dribbling down the middle of lane, Smith forced a pass between two buckeye defenders to Eric Ayala, which resulted in one of his four turnovers and a foul on Cowan at the other end.

The Terps have leaned on this star duo all season, and before Sunday, it had delivered almost without exception.

But against the Buckeyes, Smith and Cowan combined for a total of 18 points on 4-of-12 shooting — their worst combined scoring performance of the season. And for only the second time this season, neither player led the team in scoring — the only other time was when Darryl Morsell had 14 points against Oakland on Nov. 16.

“It wasn’t [Anthony’s] best day — wasn’t Jalen’s best day either,” head coach Mark Turgeon said.

Just over a minute later, Cowan maintained a full head of steam in transition before hesitating and then blowing by Ohio State defender Luther Muhammad. The senior point guard completed a layup in the middle of the lane but made contact with Buckeye star center Kaleb Wesson under the rim, forcing Cowan to the deck.

With the expectation of a foul call, Cowan laid on the ground and kicked the air in protest while looking at the Big Ten official. Following review of the play, officials called Cowan for a technical foul — later citing Rule 10, Section 3, Article 1G — which also gave him his fifth personal foul.

The play resulted in Cowan, who had just fouled out for only the third time in his career, on the pine for the remainder of the game, while his teammates fought to keep the team’s nine-game win streak alive without one of its best players.

Sophomore guards Aaron Wiggins and Ayala did about all they could do Sunday. Ayala, who was coming off a three-point performance against Northwestern five days earlier, had a season-high 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the field and 3-of-8 from deep, and Wiggins never seemed to miss, finishing with a career-high 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting (6-of-13 from beyond the arc).

“Those guys, I mean those are our guys — we know that,” Wiggins said about the team’s two leading scorers. “So having those two fall down, we all try to have their back, continue to play and execute our game plan.”

When Maryland needed to complete a 15-point comeback at home against Illinois on Dec. 7, Cowan was the guy to hit three-pointer to tie the game at 58 with less than 20 seconds remaining. Then the senior guard — who had just scored 72 points through three games to will his team to an Orlando Invitational Championship less than a week earlier — followed his heroic play with a game-winning free throw to keep the Terps undefeated at home and extend their win streak to double digits.

When the Terps found themselves in a 14-point hole to the worst team in the conference, Northwestern, at halftime on Jan. 21, Smith stepped up to the challenge. The Baltimore big man seemed to flip a switch at halftime, scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half and grabbing a total of 11 boards to propel his team to its first road victory.

But the sophomore didn’t stop there. He continued to dominate Big Ten play and was the heartbeat that kept Maryland’s nine-game win streak alive though teams like Indiana — debatably his greatest game as a Terp with a career-high 29 points, 11 rebounds and a go-ahead layup with 14 seconds left — then-No. 18 Iowa and especially Nebraska.

Against Michigan State on Feb. 15, the duo combined to pull out a victory in East Lansing. After trailing by seven with 3:24 remaining in the game, Smith knocked down a three-pointer and Cowan shortly followed his lead by hitting three straight triples to give his team a five-point advantage with less than a minute left.

Cowan and Smith have had struggles this season — such when Cowan went 1-for-8 for a season-low five points and five turnovers against Purdue on Jan. 18 — but their off days hadn’t coincided until Sunday in Columbus, with Cowan unable to buy a shot due to the Buckeyes’ stifling defense and Smith’s inability to ever find a rhythm.

“We played team defense today at a high level,” Wesson said. “I feel like that helped stop both their aggressive scorers that they had and even taking away some of the stuff they wanted to run for them.”

Before picking up his first and second foul within a span of 42 seconds against the Buckeyes, Smith took a seat on the bench with two points with 5:26 left in the first half. During that over five-minute span, Morsell, Wiggins and Ayala combined to go 1-for-6 for three points and Ohio State took a 40-33 lead going into the break.

Following halftime, Smith looked like his dominant self at times, such as when Turgeon designed a perfectly executed play out of a timeout with 17:55 remaining to get him an easy two-handed dunk, but he was never able to build off of it.

And because of that — for one of the first times all season — Smith did not look like the most dominant player on the court. In addition to his scoring difficulties, he only finished with seven rebounds.

Ohio State made it very difficult on Cowan, who was shadowed by the 6’3 Muhammad for the majority of the game. Whenever the senior guard drove to the hoop, multiple Buckeyes slid over, forcing the ball out of his hand — which actually led to a few easy layups off backdoor cuts early in the game. Eight of Cowan’s 10 points materialized from the free throw line.

“[He was] definitely frustrated,” Wesson said. “But an aggressive scorer like that — having team defense on him instead of just one-on-one and he can just play in space — try to make him see bodies and stuff like that really helped.”

Cowan’s layup over Wesson with just under four minutes remaining in the game was the senior’s lone made field goal of the afternoon. Had the scenario played out a bit different, the Bowie, Maryland, native could have remained in the game and had the opportunity to manufacture another comeback that ended with more of his late-game heroics.

“He’s been terrific all year,” Turgeon said. “Today really wasn’t his game — couldn’t really get the outside shot going — couldn’t really get a shot to be honest with you. Give them credit, it was just one of those days for him.”

With four games remaining on the regular-season schedule until the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament, where teams play a one-game series, Maryland cannot allow its two most impactful players to have a performance like Sunday’s, or the season can come to an abrupt end.