CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — Everything seemed to be going Maryland’s way Sunday night against Illinois at State Farm Center.
Until it wasn’t.
And then, with less than a second left in overtime, it was again.
A free throw by sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr. with 0.6 of a second left gave the Terps a 92-91 victory over Illinois.
Cowan, who finished with a career-high 27 points, saved the Terps from losing for the fourth time in five games and starting the Big Ten 0-2 for the first time since Maryland joined the league four years ago.
It also prevented Maryland (7-3, 1-1) from suffering its worst collapse in Mark Turgeon’s seven years as the team’s coach.
“We’ve lost a couple of close games [this season] that I thought we probably should have won,” Turgeon said. “Down two and they have the ball with 4.5 [seconds left in regulation] you’re probably not supposed to win that game, and we did. The basketball gods were kind of on our side tonight.”
Bruno Fernando, the Terps’ 6-foot-10 freshman center from Angola, tied the game on a tip-in with 0.1 of a second left in regulation, getting his right hand on the ball after sophomore guard Kevin Huerter’s corner 3-pointer bounced high off the rim.
“I just think I had to do my job, I had to box out my guy,” Fernando said. “I was hoping [Huerter’s shot] went in, but I was also expecting the worst. If he missed, I was there to rebound and put it back.”
After losing by two points each to St. Bonaventure in Florida and at Syracuse in the past 10 days, then dropping a five-point decision in the Big Ten opener Friday night against Purdue in College Park, Fernando wanted a different feeling going into the locker room after the game.
“Losing hurts, and that’s one thing we just tired of," Fernando said. “We got tired of going to the locker room and not having any words to say because we lost the game. Having a win on the road, that definitely brings us together even more and bounce back when we go back home.”
Asked how dire the situation seemed after a 3-pointer by Mark Alstork had erased the 22-point lead with 1:51 remaining in overtime, Turgeon chuckled.
“I wanted the guys to have something positive,” Turgeon said. “We’re a good basketball team. … Tonight we grew up a lot. It’s great to win one like that because now the guys know they can do it.”
Maryland fans must have been apoplectic watching Sunday’s game and thinking the Terps were going to lose after leading by 22 points, largely result of 15 second-half turnovers and hot shooting by the Illini.
Though that’s same exact lead Maryland lost to Duke in the 2001 NCAA semifinals, this would have been far more embarrassing given the team they were playing.
“The 22-point lead?” Turgeon said. “You see a lot of leads [disappear] in college basketball. In this building with that crowd and the way they guard and the way they shot it [19-for-28 in the second half, it] didn’t surprise me that they made a run at us.”
Turgeon attributed the season-high 25 turnovers — including seven by Cowan and five by Huerter — more to the physical defense first-year Illinois coach Brad Underwood brought with him from Oklahoma State, where exactly a year ago he saw the Cowboys blow a 12-point lead and lose to the Terps in College Park.
“This is a different animal,” Turgeon said of the Illini. “They’re in you, and they’re reaching and you got to be strong and they keep coming in waves. I can’t imagine anyone else in our league being able to pressure us like that if we’re up 19 at half. And then they made incredible shots.”
Only some late mistakes by the young Illini prevented Maryland from disaster.
The tip-in to force overtime came after Illinois freshman Da’Monte Williams, with his team leading by two with 4.6 seconds left, threw an inbounds pass over the heads of Alstork and Maryland sophomore forward Justin Jackson and off the court.
Playing zone is something Turgeon had tried to stay away from for most of his coaching career. The Terps used it briefly in a couple of games this season, including on one possession against Syracuse, the king of the 2-3 zone.
Maryland went to a zone with around 10 minutes left in the first half against Illinois and stuck with it for the rest of the half. The Terps, who scored the game’s first 10 points before the Illini cut their deficit to four, used the zone to trigger their running game.
Unfortunately, the Illini figured out Maryland’s zone when the Terps went back to it midway through the second half. Unlike the first half, when the Illini clanked a bunch of 3-pointers off the rim and lost the ball dribbling into double teams, the Illini patiently picked the Terps apart.
“It was working really good in the first half. They just started hitting shots in the second half, so we had to go man and guard,” Cowan said. “Coach made a great adjustment in the locker room. Coach always gives us a lot of credit, but we just came in the game with a great game plan.”
Asked whether it was the longest he ever played zone, Turgeon said: “I’ve had some really bad teams. I zoned for 40 minutes one game, but I hate to admit I did.”
Turgeon said it happened in his first season at Wichita State, and the Shockers used it to beat Southwestern Missouri State.
“I apologized after the game for doing it,” Turgeon said.
Jackson breaks out of shooting slump
Jackson, who entered Sunday’s game shooting 33.6 percent (27-for-77) from the field and an even more dismal 22.6 percent on 3-pointers (7-for-31), finally resembled the player who was Maryland’s second-leading scorer as a freshman.
The 6-7 forward finished with a season-high 20 points on eight of 13 shooting, to go along with six rebounds and two blocked shots. HIs spin move and short pull-up jumper in the lane to give the Terps an 88-87 lead with 1:16 left in overtime was Maryland’s first lead in overtime.
Asked what the difference was against Illinois, Jackson said, “Just seeing the ball go in early. My teammates have been keeping me on a high horse, keeping me positive. Coach is always talking to me and reassuring me that I’m a big part of this team.”
Jackson dispelled the theory that his confidence had been shaken by the poor start offensively, as suggested by both Huerter and longtime Amateur Athletic Union coach Jordan McFarlane last week.
“All great players go through slumps here and there,” said Jackson, who was widely considered a potential first-round NBA pick after performing well at the league’s scouting combine last spring. “It was just a matter of getting back in the gym and just reassuring yourself you’re a big part of the team.
“I have great teammates and a great coaching staff and at the end of every game, they would always tell me that you had great effort, don’t worry about it. There’s a time that going to come when you’ll have your breakout game. Nobody was really worried. I was never worried. I knew it was a matter of time before the ball started falling.”
After falling behind by as many as 14 points on four occasions in the first half against Purdue, Turgeon and Huerter talked about Maryland getting off to a better start, particularly at the defensive end.
Though Maryland hit five of its first seven shots to take a 10-0 lead, it was the defense that got the Terps off quickly, forcing five early turnovers and forcing Underwood to sub out four of his starters.