As senior nights go, the one Friday at Xfinity Center for the Maryland men’s basketball team was more memorable for what happened before the game than what transpired during it.
A marriage proposal, the one little-used forward Ivan Bender gave his longtime girlfriend from Bosnia and Herzegovina, can do that.
Yet after what happened last season, when the Terps were down 30 to Michigan at halftime on senior day and lost by 24, that might have been a good thing.
Though not as exciting as the game two years ago — when Melo Trimble hit a game-winning 3 to beat Michigan State in what turned out to be the junior guard’s final home game — Maryland’s performance against Minnesota could be more significant.
A year ago, their performance before the only sellout crowd was only a continuation of what might go down as Mark Turgeon’s most disappointing season at Maryland, one wrecked by injuries and inconsistency.
A week later, the Terps were done after a 19-13 season, losing to Wisconsin in their first game in the Big Ten tournament.
Two years ago, Maryland’s win over the Spartans was simply a brief interlude during a late-season slide that ruined a program-best 20-2 start.
One-and-dones in the Big Ten tournament (losing to Northwestern in Washington) and the NCAA tournament (losing to Xavier in Orlando in the Round of 64) followed in what became a 24-9 season.
It will be interesting to see how the Terps use what they did against the Gophers — a team coming off their own senior night win over No. 11 Purdue — when the Big Ten tournament begins the coming week in Chicago.
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 69-60 victory over Minnesota:
1. The difference between how the Terps look when Anthony Cowan Jr. plays well and doesn’t is obvious.
There has been a lot of chatter about what Turgeon should do with his junior guard if he continued to play as he did in the team’s previous two games, a 17-point loss at Penn State on Feb. 27 and a 69-62 defeat to then-No. 9 Michigan last Sunday.
If Turgeon has shown anything over the past two seasons, and for nearly all of Cowan’s college career, is that he will allow the 6-foot junior to play through rough patches. It has, at times, hurt the Terps.
Cowan rewarded his coach’s loyalty Friday. From the start, when he scored on a backdoor layup off a nice feed from sophomore center Bruno Fernando and then immediately followed with a 3-pointer, Cowan showed his value.
When Cowan is hitting shots, especially early, it opens things up for Fernando in particular and Maryland’s big men in general. While Fernando’s two quick fouls took him off the floor for most of the first half, it helped Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) get off to a good start.
While the difference in Cowan’s scoring average in Big Ten wins and losses is noticeable — 17.1 points in the 13 wins compared to 12.7 in seven losses — it goes deeper than that. It’s his body language and the confidence he exudes that rub off on his teammates.
2. Darryl Morsell is starting to show some dependability in his decision-making.
The performance by the sophomore guard from Baltimore was another encouraging sign in his own development.
Since he arrived at Maryland, Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) has provided the Terps with toughness and consistent defense. But he, and by extension Maryland, had been held back with Morsell committing the kind of head-scratching turnovers that drove Turgeon crazy.
In his past two games, Morsell has not committed a single turnover in 65 minutes, while doling out seven assists and scoring 10 points in each game.
It not only marks the first time this season that Morsell has gone back-to-back games without a turnover, it is the first time in his career.
Morsell said Thursday that he and Turgeon have talked a lot recently about his need to cut down on turnovers, which mostly result from the 6-5 guard trying to make difficult passes.
Turgeon said after Friday’s game that Morsell has worked a lot harder on his game — including his improved 3-point shot — over the past six weeks. Given his role as a defensive stopper, a good assist-to-turnover ratio is what’s needed in a glue guy like Morsell.
3. Jalen Smith’s magic number is 15.
That’s the point total the 6-10 forward reaches when Maryland always wins. The Terps are unbeaten (10-0) this season when Smith scores at least 15. Morsell’s former Mount Saint Joseph teammate had a double double of 19 points and 11 rebounds Friday night.
While the Terps have won a dozen more games when Smith doesn’t score as much, it means someone other than Cowan and Fernando is producing offensively. It also means Maryland is tougher to defend.
Hitting two early 3-pointers played a factor in Smith’s performance against the Gophers, against whom he also blocked a career-high-tying three shots. That’s usually the way it is for many players, especially freshmen.
Because of his versatility to score inside and outside, Smith can be the most difficult player on Maryland to defend at times. That Fernando still draws almost nightly double teams, and teams are also wary of letting Cowan get going, should help Smith.
A lot depends on matchups, but it has more to do with Smith’s own confidence and aggressiveness. He played with both against the Gophers, and it seemed to reach its pinnacle when he sent Jordan Murphy’s dunk attempt flying 20 feet in the other direction.
As critical as Cowan and Fernando are to Maryland’s postseason chances in Chicago and in the NCAA tournament, the skinny freshman with the goggles — nicknamed “Stix” — could be his team’s X-factor for survival.
In those 10 wins when he scores at least 15 points, Smith is averaging 17.6 points and 8.3 rebounds. Those are the kinds of numbers many thought Smith might put together nightly as a freshman. Though he concedes he’s inconsistent, those numbers show his — and Maryland’s — potential the rest of the way.
Considering Smith scored eight points in the first half with Fernando on the bench nursing his two fouls, it also gave a glimpse of what Maryland’s offense might look like next season if Smith returns and Fernando, as most expect, leaves for the NBA.