The Maryland men's basketball team had a 33-23 lead at halftime against Wisconsin Feb. 4, but the Badgers put together a 16-7 run to begin the second half to get to cut the lead to 40-39. Back-to-back baskets by freshman forward Nate Reuvers capped the run for Wisconsin, which came into the contest having lost seven of its last eight games.
Sophomore guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter took over the game for the Terps after Wisconsin crawled to within one point. The pair scored 23 of Maryland's final 28 points during the Terps' 68-63 win, with the only other points coming courtesy of a 3-pointer by senior guard/forward Jared Nickens and two free throws by freshman forward Bruno Fernando.
"Those are the type of plays you've got to make if you want to be considered the better players in the league, leaders on your team," Huerter said. "You've got to learn how to win games at the end of the game like we did."
The Terps' crunch-time execution against Wisconsin was an improvement over recent results. Maryland was out-scored, 14-6, in the final 4:53
during a loss at Indiana Jan. 22
, as Terps' half-court offense broke down; Huerter didn't take a shot in crunch time. After a
six-point loss to Michigan State Jan. 28
, Huerter said the mounting number of close losses were "frustrating because it seems like we just keep not making the right plays down the stretch."
Against Wisconsin, Cowan and Huerter made the right plays.
Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon credited his team's execution of ball screens to allow it to play through Cowan and Huerter. Turgeon said his two top players "took turns a little" depending on which Badger was defending them. Turgeon explained that his team started setting more ball screens as part of its half-court offense with about 12 minutes left in regulation, which is when Cowan and Huerter began to take over the game.
Huerter and Cowan explained that the ball screen actions gave them an opportunity to score.
"Wisconsin … played ball screens a little differently than teams have been playing," Huerter said. "They were kind of sagging off on our ball screens, trying not to let us throw pocket passes to the bigs. Me and Anthony especially, a lot of teams have been hard hedging and trying to double us when we come off on a screen. That's why I think today we were a little more effective in it. I think every game we'll just keep getting better."
Added Cowan: "We kind of went away from our plays. How they were guarding us, I thought it was smart to really just put us in ball screens and kind of spread the floor, and obviously it worked. I think me and Kevin both made the plays we needed to for us to win."
Cowan and Huerter have been relied upon heavily all year, but especially since the injury bug hit the Terps. Senior center Michal Cekovsky missed his second straight game with an injured left heel, meaning Maryland was down to eight scholarship players. Cowan and Huerter combined for 42 of Maryland's 68 points Feb. 4, or nearly 62 percent. The pair combined for eight rebounds and seven assists, as well.
Maryland's next task is a trip to State College, Pa., to take on Penn State Feb. 7. The Nittany Lions are 6-6 in the Big Ten, won at Ohio State Jan. 25 and have five scorers averaging double figures. After that, the Terps face Northwestern twice and Nebraska, Rutgers and Michigan once apiece.
Cowan and Huerter will need more help during the Terps' last six regular-season games than they got Feb. 4, but crunch time in those contests will almost certainly come down to Cowan and Huerter.
"I think guys on the team are looking more and more at the end of games for us to make plays," Huerter said. "For us, I don't think it's about coexisting. I think we should both be able to get ours, set each other up as much as we can, and I think we do a good job of that."
Maryland may need to win all six of its remaining games -- which would put it at 11-7 in the Big Ten -- to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
"All we can do is just keep on fighting, keep on coming to practice every day to try to get better," Cowan said. "I honestly feel like we're getting so much better after each game. Just can't stop now. There's no time for us to put our heads down."
NOTES: Terps senior center Sean Obi struggled at Purdue Jan. 31, fouling out in limited minutes. He bounced back Feb. 4. He was especially effective in nine first-half minutes, scoring three points, grabbing five rebounds, drawing a charge and providing solid defense on the block against Wisconsin junior forward Ethan Happ. "That's who I am, making tough plays," Obi said. "And besides the rebounds, just making hustle plays, taking charges, diving down for loose balls and whatever it takes to win." … Maryland redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley had a block against Wisconsin freshman guard Brad Davison with two seconds left to ice the game. "Just for something positive to happen to Dion, it's great and I think that'll help him going into Wednesday," Turgeon said.