Trusting his teammates takes Anthony Cowan Jr.'s game to another level during Maryland's 5-game winning streak

While many Maryland fans left Xfinity Center after Friday night’s 78-75 victory over No. 22 Indiana marveling over the performance by Bruno Fernando, Hoosiers second-year coach Archie Miller was thinking more about Anthony Cowan Jr.

Both players had carried the Terps back from a horrendous start, during which Indiana scored the game’s first nine points, and later from deficits of 14 points midway through the first half and 10 points early in the second half.

Their final stats spoke of domination for most of the second half, including when the Terps went on a 16-0 run that eventually helped Maryland build its lead to as many as 10 points before Indiana freshman Romeo Langford (28 points) made the score close.

Fernando, Maryland’s man-child sophomore center, finished with 17 of his career-high 25 points in the second half, to go along with 13 rebounds and three assists. He missed just one of 12 shots from the field.

Cowan, the team’s mercurial junior guard, had 16 of his 24 points after halftime — including six straight free throws in the final minute to keep the Langford and the Hoosiers at bay — as well as a season-high seven assists and five rebounds.

Asked what turned the game around for both teams, Miller said: “I thought Anthony Cowan took it upon himself and really started to attack. He was at straight lines at the basket [during the] back part of the first half, and the second half we had a really hard time for a while containing him off the dribble.”

It is the way Cowan has played through most of his team’s five-game winning streak going into Monday night’s matchup with Wisconsin at Xfinity Center.

In the past four games, the 6-foot, 170-pound Cowan has averaged a shade over 21 points and nearly five assists while shooting just under 45 percent from the field (26-for-58) and 44 percent (11-for-25) on 3-pointers.

“Anthony was really playing well [before], but he’s taken it to another level,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Friday. “We knew he would. He wasn’t making shots the way Anthony can make shots. Now he’s starting to make shots. It makes him really hard to guard.”

Miller agreed, remembering how Cowan struggled in last year’s game in Bloomington.

In a 71-68 loss to the Hoosiers, Cowan made just six of 18 shots from the field, getting several layups blocked and not getting some foul calls. He also missed five of his six 3-point attempts, including a rushed 28-footer with six seconds left in the game.

“I think he’s a year older, a year stronger, they’ve got a good system, they’ve got good players around him so he has space to play,” Miller said Friday. “He’s a really tough cover in terms of one-on-one. … I thought last year we did a much better job being physical with him.”

If there was a way to measure body language, Cowan has made a big jump in that department as well this season. Known to pout when things didn’t go his way his first two seasons, Cowan appears to finally embrace the role as leader rather than just leading scorer.

Since the start of preseason workouts, Turgeon has talked about Cowan being a “new Anthony.”

A lot of it comes from the trust he has in teammates. Not only in Fernando, who as a sophomore has become perhaps the best center in the Big Ten, but also in sophomore Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) and the four freshmen who make up much of Maryland’s eight-player rotation.

“I think it’s knowing that we have a core of guys that are just really good basketball players,” Cowan said in a telephone interview Sunday. “I just know when it’s my job to give them the ball. I have ultimate trust they’re going to accomplish [what they’re supposed to do.]”

That wasn’t always the case a year ago, when Cowan and fellow sophomore guard Kevin Huerter were forced to carry the team offensively for most of the season, first when another sophomore, forward Justin Jackson, started off in a horrendous shooting slump and then after Jackson was sidelined the second half of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

With the emergence of Fernando, and the arrival of forward Jalen Smith [Mount Saint Joseph] and the other freshmen, even an off-night for Cowan is not a calamity.

Evidence of that came in the 78-64 win over Radford on Dec. 29 that started the recent winning streak. Cowan scored a season-low 10 points, missing seven of nine shots, including four of five on 3-pointers. Fernando, Morsell and freshman guard Eric Ayala were all in double figures in points.

“I think he always trusted the guys,” Turgeon said on a teleconference Sunday. “He really likes his teammates. Maybe the game’s slowed down a little bit for him. I think we’ve gotten a lot better in our half-court offense.

“There’s a lot more guys involved in what we’re doing and we’ve just gotten better, and our spacing’s gotten better, so think that’s helped Anthony. I think Anthony’s playing with more confidence.”

Cowan acknowledged Sunday that he’s at a better comfort level than he’s been at most of the season.

“I think [it’s] just the confidence my coaches and teammates are putting into me,” Cowan said. “I think that’s one of the biggest reasons. I think I just play more free, I just let the game come to me. I just key in on trying to make the right plays.”

The first month of the season seemed to be an adjustment period for Cowan, mostly in sharing the point guard job with Ayala.

In Maryland’s first nine games, Cowan made just 14 of 52 on 3-point shots (26.9 percent), including two of 10 in a 62-60 loss at Purdue that ended with Cowan’s corner 3-pointer near the buzzer being blocked by 6-6 sophomore Nojel Eastern.

Turgeon said after the Dec. 6 game — the only loss in the Big Ten so far for the Terps — that it was not the shot he wanted his team to take.

The turnover-prone Cowan also continued to be a little careless with the ball. Maryland’s 74-72 win over then-No. 24 Nebraska on Jan. 2 marked the first time all season Cowan didn’t have a turnover.

As much as Fernando has improved from his freshman year — Turgeon has often said no player in the country has made the jump the 6-10 Angolan has — Cowan is still more of a barometer of Maryland’s success.

Acknowledging that Fernando is “a load … one of the best players in our league,” Indiana’s Miller believes the Terps will go as far as Cowan takes them.

“I still think the key to their team goes through Anthony Cowan,” Miller said before leaving Xfinity Center on Friday. “When he’s playing like that, they’re tough to deal with.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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