LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. — Coming into his senior year, Anthony Cowan Jr. promised to lead a nationally-ranked Maryland men’s basketball team heaped with a ton of expectations better than he had the past two seasons.
After starting the season with a string of five straight blowouts against low to mid-major competition, the No. 5 Terps needed Cowan to carry them for most of Thursday’s opening-round game against Temple in the Orlando Invitational at the HP Field House. And Cowan needed some help down the stretch from some teammates who had been quiet for much of the afternoon.
Cowan finished with a career-high 30 points, including 20 in the second half, as Maryland (6-0) overcame a big early deficit and a few smaller deficits in the second half to beat the Owls, 76-69, to advance to Friday’s semifinals against Harvard, which beat Texas A&M, 62-51. Sophomore guard Eric Ayala added 13 points and sophomore forward Jalen Smith had 12 points and nine rebounds.
“I want to give Temple a lot of credit. They were shot out of a cannon,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who watched the previously unbeaten Owls (4-1) hit four of their first five shots and four 3-pointers in the first 4½ minutes to jump out to a 16-7 lead. “We’re still getting used to that, teams coming after us because of our ranking."
After tying the game late in the first half, the Terps trailed by five, 34-29, at halftime. Cowan scored his team’s first seven points of the second half to help Maryland stay close. But senior guard Alani Moore II, a former Amateur Athletic Union teammate of Cowan with D.C. Assault, seemed determine to lead Temple to another upset and make the Terps the seventh preseason top-10 team to lose this season.
Finally, after six lead changes and six ties in the final 17:18, Maryland took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Cowan with 2:35 remaining to put the Terps ahead 65-62. Smith, who made his first two 3-pointers of the season during the second-half run, took over defensively and Ayala hit a crucial 3-pointer and a tough drive late in the shot clock to finally put away the Owls.
“I just told the guys at the eight-minute timeout that we have to be great in the half-court,” Turgeon said. “We were really relying on ball screens and Anthony. We showed a couple of sets that he haven’t shown a lot this year. Our guys executed great. The game could have gone either way, we know that. We made enough plays down the stretch to come out on top.”
Asked how crucial was it to get help offensively down the stretch, particularly from Smith and Ayala, Cowan said: “I know my teammates are going to make shots and they all stepped up and made big shots. Teams are going to try to take me out of the game early, try to take me out of the game the whole game. My teammates know they have to step up, and that’s what they did today.”
Perhaps the biggest offensive play came from Ayala. After Moore, who scored a team-high 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting (6-for-10 on 3-pointers) hit an off-balanced 3 to cut Maryland’s lead to 70-67 with 54 seconds left, first-year Owls coach Aaron McKie called timeout to set his team’s defense
Specifically, it was to make sure Cowan, who made 11 of 19 shots on a combination of drives and 3-pointers (4-for-8 from beyond the arc), didn’t score.
Despite Cowan’s seemingly valid protestations, Turgeon put the ball in the hands of Ayala, who allowed the 30-second shot clock to hit about eight seconds before making his move. Starting five feet behind the 3-point line, Ayala drove hard down the middle of the lane before faking a pass to the right corner and putting a shot off the backboard with his right hand to push the lead back to five with 27 seconds to go.
“Just slowing the game down. I’ve been pick-and-roll and ball screens pretty much every day. It just happened to be a couple of seconds on the clock,” Ayala said. “Coach trusted me and my teammates trusted me, and I just made the play.”
Turgeon figured that Temple would have double-teamed Cowan had he tried to make the same play.
“Anthony was mad at me because Anthony wanted the ball and I kind of waved Anthony out,” Turgeon said. “I think they would have doubled Anthony more and we would have had to make another play. My gut, I kind of went with Eric on that play.”
It was the first competitive game that the Terps had been in this season after winning their first five by an average of nearly 21 points. Though it helped that Maryland fans represented most of those in attendance on Thanksgiving Day, Turgeon’s team took a shot from a team that always seems to play the Terps tough.
Ayala said he thought about last year’s NCAA tournament, up the interstate in Jacksonville, when the Terps survived their opening game against Belmont, 79-77, before losing to LSU, 69-67, on a last-second shot.
“We’re older. I guess we’ve got a year in [and] we’ve played in these games,” Ayala said. “I subbed in with five, six minutes [into the game] and I just started thinking about the tournament. We [were] playing against Belmont and how we had to stick that out. It made it easier.”
Said Turgeon: “We looked a little bit young today. At times our bench wasn’t quite as deep. That was a high-level game, that was a high-level NCAA tournament game. We’re going to learn from it, get better. I was really proud of our guys to execute like we did down the stretch. And I thought our fan base gave us a lift too.”
Orlando Invitational semifinals
No. 5 Maryland vs. Harvard
Friday, 11:30 a.m.
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM