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Improved free-throw shooting plays big part in No. 19 Maryland's six-game winning streak

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon talks Thursday about his team’s improvement in free throw shooting. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)

As Maryland’s field-goal drought in the second half of Monday’s game against Wisconsin dragged on — eventually lasting more than 10 minutes — the Terps saw what had been a 21-point lead evaporate and turn into a one-point deficit with a little over two minutes left at Xfinity Center.

Lost in the dramatic nature of what would become a 64-60 victory was the way the 19th-ranked Terps continued to hit free throws. Though overshadowed by Anthony Cowan Jr.’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 44 seconds remaining, efficiency at the foul line helped pull Maryland to its sixth straight victory.

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During that stretch when coach Mark Turgeon’s team couldn’t hit shots at one end and couldn’t stop the Badgers from burying them at the other — in particular 3-pointers — the Terps made 12 of 14 free throws. Cowan hit seven of eight in the last 11:01, and his only miss was on purpose with a second to go.

“We’ve really come a long way at the foul line,” Turgeon said after Maryland hit 24 of 29 against Wisconsin, which made just three of six foul shots.

The last time the Terps lost — a 78-74 defeat at home to Seton Hall on Dec. 22 — Maryland missed eight of its first 16 free throws and finished 12-for-20 overall. Conversely, the Pirates made 18 of 21 from the line, with their backcourt combination of Myles Powell and Myles Cale going an evenly distributed 16-for-16.

In the six victories since, the Terps have made over 81 percent of their free throws (111 of 137), including hitting 24 of 27 in an 82-67 road win at Minnesota when the Gophers were a ghastly 9-for-23. Maryland also made 18 of 22 in their 78-75 home win over then-No. 22 Indiana when the Hoosiers were a perfect 16-for-16. Opposing teams have shot a mere 62.4 percent (58 of 93) during Maryland’s winning streak.

Going into Friday’s game at Ohio State, Maryland’s free-throw percentage (74.4 percent) ranks second in the Big Ten behind Iowa (75.7). The Terps’ 78.8 percent in league games ranks slightly ahead of the Hawkeyes (77.5) for the Big Ten lead.

Asked after Thursday’s practice about his team’s improvement at the free-throw line, Turgeon said, “I think it’s guys just getting in the gym. Free throw’s a time to be selfish. You have a chance to score. When you’re playing in a game, you have to be so unselfish all the time.

“Our guys come early, stay late, come late at night. They’ve really worked on it. When they’re making free throws, they’ve earned it. They’ve put the time in. And then it’s just the right guys getting fouled and they’re shooting with confidence.”

What helps the Terps is that their three top scorers — Cowan, sophomore center Bruno Fernando and freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) are among the best free-throw shooters in Big Ten games.

Fernando’s 26-for-30 (86.7 percent, tied for fifth). Cowan is 42-for-50 (84 percent) to rank 11th. Smith is right outside the top 15, having made 19 of 24 free throws (79.2 percent). Cowan has taken and made the the most free throws in league games among all Big Ten players.

Smith made just 30 of 51 foul shots through his first 12 games, but has hit 18 of 20 since, including six of seven against Wisconsin. He said that the mental part has been the biggest part of his newfound efficiency.

“Just going to the line, saying to myself, ‘I’m going to make it,’ ” Smith said Thursday. “Once I say that, I make it. That’s pretty much just giving myself the confidence boost.”

Fernando said practice makes nearly perfect for the Terps (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten).

“We talk about free throws a lot,” he said. “We work on free throws every day at practice. Every time Coach says it’s a water break, everyone gets in a line and starts shooting free throws because he knows it’s a big part of the game, especially the way the game is played today. People try to foul at a crucial time in the game, so obviously having a guy knocking down free throws helps us a lot in the long run.”

Historically, Turgeon’s teams during his eight seasons at Maryland have done better when shooting free throws at a high clip. In the three straight years when the Terps made the NCAA tournament, they shot 75.6 percent in 2014-15, 76.8 percent in 2015-16 and 69.9 percent in 2016-17.

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Though last year’s team that failed to reach the NCAA tournament after shooting 75.5 percent from the foul line, it attempted only 645 free throws, the fewest number since Turgeon took over the program. In comparison, only the 2008-09 team that attempted just 611, shot fewer in 22 seasons under Hall of Famer Gary Williams. That team went 21-14, and made the NCAA tournament.

A high free-throw percentage is not the only factor in Maryland winning six of its first seven Big Ten games, including the past five. After a horrendous start this season, the Terps rank first in league competition in 3-point shooting (38.8 percent). Turgeon’s team is also first or second in several rebounding categories and is third in field-goal defense (41.6).

It helps offset the fact that Maryland’s overall offense ranks toward the bottom in some categories. The Terps are 12th in assists (11.1 per game) as well as assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9). According to Kenpom.com, Maryland is also 12th in 2-point percentage (46.2) in league competition, including making just eight of 31 against Wisconsin.

But with so many games coming down to the wire, and many of them decided at the free-throw line, Maryland has a chance to continue to do well in the Big Ten if Cowan, Fernando, Smith and others keep drawing fouls and keep making the uncontested 15-footer.

Turgeon recalled running a play in the Seton Hall game for Smith, who was fouled but then missed a pair of free throws.

“I wanted to run the play again, but I didn’t,” Turgeon said Thursday. “Now I know he’s going to make free throws, so I’m going to run the play to him as much as I want — early, late, whatever in game, so it gives me a little bit more freedom to do. … It’s just kids working on it, getting more comfortable. We recruit good shooters and we need every one of them.”

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