There was No. 6 Maryland, struggling to score early and falling behind another mid-major opponent midway through the first half Friday night at Xfinity Center. There was senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., not looking to score early and then picking up his second personal foul with a tick under 12 minutes left in the half.
In a game that started a tougher schedule where Terps coach Mark Turgeon promised that his team would be “playing for the keeps,” Maryland and its enigmatic floor leader woke up late in the first half against George Mason. Cowan and an equally dormant Jalen Smith led their team on a 19-2 run to take a 12-point halftime lead and cruise to a 86-63 victory over the previously unbeaten Patriots.
Cowan, who scored his first point with 7:43 left in the first half, led Maryland with 16 points. Sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins finished with a season-high 15, tying his career-high. Smith, who didn’t score until there were nearly three minutes left in the first half, wound up with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. Freshman Makhi Mitchell, who didn’t play in the first half, had career-highs of 12 points and eight rebounds.
Redshirt junior center A.J. Wilson led George Mason (5-1) with a game-high 19.
“Really pleased with our game tonight, obviously didn’t start the way we wanted,” Turgeon said. “We just weren’t mentally ready. We were making mental mistakes the first 12 minutes of the game, which allowed them to keep the lead. I called timeout at 8:05, they responded. The last 28 minutes we were really, really good.”
Asked afterward whether he was concerned about another slow start, Turgeon said, "Am I concerned? Yeah, but I think if our guys just lock in. Maybe it will take getting away from Xfinity Center and going down to Orlando and being challenged in a different way, maybe not having the home crowd. I think we’ve grown up a lot, but in these three games in four days against good competition, we can really grow up a lot.
“The good thing is that we respond at a high level. That last five minutes of the first half we were terrific. Our execution was great, our defense was great, our rebounding was great. We did a lot of really good things, so that’s encouraging. The guys from the neck up, they’ve got to lock in and I think that will help us moving forward.”
Cowan, who finished with just three fouls, hit the second of two free throws with the Terps trailing 23-19 to start his own scoring burst and his team’s big run. He followed immediately with a driving layup and later hit a 3-point shot and then, after a miss by sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, made a 3-point play. Smith took it from there with two free throws, a pull-up jumper and his own 3-point play.
“It’s not, ‘I got to get going,’ I’m just going with the flow,” Cowan said of his own slow start, something that he has done often in his career. “I see open lanes, I see open shots, I’m going to take it. The confidence is up and I just keep going.”
The run came with Cowan playing with two fouls. He nearly got a third when he drove the lane and was undercut at the last second, drawing a trip to the free throw line that could have easily been called the other way.
“He [Turgeon] told me, ‘Just don’t foul’,” Cowan said. “I just tried to play it smarter, tried to play with my feet rather than my hands.”
Wiggins then finished the 19-2 run with a 3-point shot in the closing seconds of the half.
“That was really important, the crowd got behind us in that run,” said Wiggins. “We had a lot of momentum, a lot of positivity coming out of for us."
The Terps won’t play again until facing Temple on Thursday in the first round of the Orlando Invitational, a tournament in which the Terps could play a number of highly regarded, but unranked Power 5 teams, including Texas A&M on Friday and either Southern Cal or Marquette in Sunday’s championship game. Two years ago, Maryland lost to St. Bonaventure in the first round of another Florida tournament.
Three-point struggle, free throw party
The Terps continued their season-long struggle with 3-point shooting, finishing 6-of-22. But after hitting just 14 of 25 free throws in Tuesday’s 74-55 win over Fairfield and dropping to 65.6 percent for the season, Maryland made 30 of 38 from the foul line, including 7 of 8 by Cowan, 6 of 7 by Smith and 8 of 12 by Mitchell.
When a reporter mentioned that his team “a little bit” at the free-throw line from its last game, Turgeon smiled.
“It’s not a little bit, 56 [%] to 78, I would have taken that in algebra, right?” Turgeon said. “That was a big improvement. No, we’re working on it. I just told the guys, ‘Step up and make a free throw. It’s not that hard. You’ve been doing it your whole life. Makhi was probably the biggest [improvement]. He made his first six. That was big for us him making 'em. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Hopefully when the league comes around we’re shooting at a high level."
INSTANT ANALYSIS: At some point, Maryland’s slow starts are going to catch up with Turgeon’s team, possibly next week in Florida. Somehow, the Terps have to come out in attack mode, possibly by starting games with their press or their zone, both of which has seemed to flummox most of their opponents this season.
NO. 6 MARYLAND 86, GEORGE MASON 63
GEORGE MASON (5-1): Wilson 6-12 6-8 19, Calixte 0-1 0-1 0, Miller 2-5 2-2 6, Greene 4-16 1-2 11, Hartwell 4-10 3-5 13, Oduro 1-2 0-0 2, Mar 1-4 2-2 4, Johnson 0-3 2-4 2, Douglas-Stanley 2-3 0-0 6. Totals 20-56 16-24 63.