Maryland's three sophomores lead wild ride to victory at Illinois

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Ever since Melo Trimble announced last spring that he would forgo his senior year at Maryland to turn pro, the three players who started all or most of their freshman seasons knew they would have to make the crucial plays that almost seemed routine to the team’s former star.

Guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter had done it a few times at the start of the 2017-18 season, but it wasn’t until Sunday night’s 92-91 overtime win at Illinois that forward Justin Jackson, off to a shockingly slow start through the first eight games, joined them.


The result was an impressive first half for the three sophomores in helping the Terps build a 19-point halftime lead that would grow to 22 points early in the second half, as well as some clutch shots in the overtime, particularly by Cowan.

“It was something we envisioned going into the year, all of us being more consistent game-to-game, stepping up more as scorers and taking on more of a role in our offense,” Huerter said Monday. “That was the first game all of us really felt comfortable and had good games.”


After freshman center Bruno Fernando tipped in a missed corner 3-pointer by Huerter to beat the final horn by a tenth of a second to force overtime, then dunked in Maryland’s first basket in overtime, the sophomores accounted for the rest of their team’s points.

Jackson, who scored a season-high 20 points to go along with six rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots, scored on a turnaround in the lane to give the Terps their first lead in overtime at 88-87 with 1:16 remaining.

Huerter, who finished with 17 points as well as seven rebounds, four assists and a blocked shot, hit one of two free throws to cut an 84-82 deficit to one with 2:29 left in overtime, and later made a 3-pointer from the left wing to put the Terps ahead 91-89 with 39 seconds to go.

Cowan, who finished with a career-high 27 points and six assists, had nine of the team’s 17 in the extra period, including the game-winning free throw with 0.6 of a second left before purposely missing a second attempt that didn’t allow the Illini a final desperation shot.

“We had guys really play well tonight,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said in the news conference afterward at State Farm Center. “Anthony was great, Justin Jackson had his best game of the year; he made some big-time plays for us. Kevin’s a steady influence for us.”

While Cowan has led the Terps in scoring in seven of their first nine games, and Huerter was coming off strong offensive performances in narrow losses to Syracuse (23 points) and Purdue (19), Jackson’s offensive game had all but disappeared.

After finishing second behind Trimble in scoring (10.4) and leading Maryland in 3-point shooting (43.8 percent) a year ago, Jackson came into Sunday’s game averaging nine points, but shooting just 33.5 percent from the field and 22.5 percent on 3-pointers.

Against Illinois, Jackson watched his first shot on an offensive rebound put-back spin out, but then dunked in a no-look pass from Huerter and quickly followed up by grabbing a defensive rebound at one end and scoring on a mid-range jumper at the other.


But the floater in the lane is what will be remembered the most from Sunday.

“That move in the lane that he made was vintage Justin Jackson,” Turgeon said. “It’s a reason we won. If he didn’t play like that, we would have lost the game.”

Said Jackson: “I do whatever it takes to win. … I feel like I’m a big part of this team.”

Asked how important Jackson's performance was for both the 6-foot-7 Canadian and the Terps, Turgeon said: “It’s huge for us. It’s huge. He’s got so many people talking to him, trying to get him going. He’s trying to get himself going.

“He knows he’s a great player. Sometimes young men can put too much on themselves, and maybe he was doing that, I don’t know. It’s just great to see in such a big-time environment.”


Jackson said he has tried to ignore some of the criticism directed at him, but being “a social media guy” it can be difficult.

“I try not to pay attention to it as much as I can, but at the end of the day you do see it and I try to use it as motivation,” he said. “A fan that’s going against me, I’m thinking, ‘That’s not the real Justin Jackson.’ At the end of the day, I knew it was a matter of time before the ball started falling and they’d love me again.”

Jackson’s teammates know how vital he is to Maryland’s success.

“When Justin’s rolling, it’s really hard to stop us,” Cowan said. “I think Kevin had a great game. Justin gave us that extra boost that we needed to get over the top. He hit a clutch basket in overtime. He had great first half [eight points, six rebounds]. I don’t know how many rebounds he had, but it always feels like over 10 rebounds.”

If there’s one area that all three have to improve on for the team to be successful, it’s cutting down on turnovers. On a night when the Terps committed a season-high 25, Cowan had seven, one short of a career -high, while Huerter had five and Jackson four.

“You can’t win when you have a lot of turnovers,” Jackson said. “That’s something that we’re really focusing on as a team. We’re still getting used to each other, the chemistry is growing every game. It’s still early, so we still have time to correct it.”