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Anthony Cowan Jr. might just be ready to lead Maryland somewhere special | COMMENTARY

Maryland senior Anthony Cowan Jr. has reached that point in his college basketball career where any performance — large or small — can spark a conversation about his rightful place among the best guards in the history of the program.

There are games, like Thursday night’s big victory over No. 18 Iowa, when it’s easy to see a banner bearing his name hanging from the rafters of Xfinity Center. There are others when it’s not so obvious and the talk turns to whether the Terrapins must go deep into the NCAA Tournament in his final season for him to get the credit he deserves.

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The whole resume was on display against the Hawkeyes. Cowan scored a career-high 31 points. He was a magician around the rim. He climbed past Terps great Walt Williams into 12th place on the team’s all-time scoring list. He continued to pad an all-around statistical record that should leave him among the school’s top 10 in several offensive category.

It was one of nights when everyone — players, coaches, fans — had to just step back and watch in awe as the smallest guy on the court dominated one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Coach Mark Turgeon allowed that it might have the best game of his career.

“Anthony Cowan was off the charts,’’ Turgeon said. “He was efficient. Fast. A pest. He’s having fun. He was really good. Really, really good.”

That was who he will have to be on a more consistent basis if the Terps are to reclaim their place near the top of the national rankings and take the big step forward at tournament time that has eluded them during the Turgeon era.

For Cowan and the young Terps, it was particularly important to make a statement against the Hawkeyes, who had handed them their most dispiriting loss of the season three weeks ago in Iowa City. Cowan scored just nine points in that 18-point loss, making just two of 10 shots from the field and only three of seven free throws.

The Terps suffered another tough road loss at Wisconsin four days later, but played much better and have won four straight games since. Cowan said Thursday night that the first Iowa game was a wakeup call that forced the team back into a winning mindset.

“We just have to go to the next game, have that mentality,’’ he said. “I know Coach has been telling you how good the league is this year. We’ve got no room for feeling sorry for ourselves. We’ve just got to keep getting better. We have been since that game.”

With Iowa’s terrific big man, Luka Garza, in foul trouble from the start and Terps forward Jalen Smith having another big night, the waters parted for Cowan, who attacked the rim and turned the Hawkeyes inside out.

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“They sat in a zone, so I just had to get aggressive,’’ Cowan said. “And also, my teammates were able to knock down shots and that made it easier for me. That’s kind of how we got out of the way when we played them there. We just weren’t aggressive with the zone, so that’s what I made sure I did.”

The Hawkeyes were able to contain him on a poor shooting night, but had no answer Thursday as Cowan fed off the energy of the raucous crowd and combined with Smith to score 49 of Maryland’s 82 points.

“He’s virtually impossible to keep in front of you,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “You’ve got to be in the gaps. You’ve got to, sort of, collectively defend him. You’ve got a shot if he’s missing jumpers. If he’s making jumpers, it’s really difficult. The thing about him, he finds people, too, so he’ll pitch it to the rim. He’ll skip it to the corner. He’s creative that way. He plays like a veteran guy who’s been through it and knows how to win.”

There will be more games like that. There have to be if the Terps are to get anywhere close to where they want to go this season. There also will be times when the right defense forces Cowan back into a more complementary role.

“Let’s be realistic, he’s not going to have 31 every night,’’ Turgeon said. “He’s human. I think Anthony is one of the top guards in the country. … He’s terrific and the thing I love about it is it’s all about winning with Anthony this year. As for 31 tonight, that’ll be tough, but consistently with his decision-making, he’s been really good for us.”

But maybe never quite this good.

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“He was feeling it,’’ Turgeon added. “We all saw it. We just kind of got out of his way and let him do his deal tonight.”

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