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As defenses load up on Cowan and Huerter, Maryland looks for other scoring options

COLLEGE PARK — After sophomore guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter helped Maryland get off to a quick start in last Thursday night’s game at Ohio State, first-year Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann changed his defense.

Instead of one player trying to get in the way of the lightning-quick Cowan, there were two. Instead of one hand in Huerter’s face as he released his textbook-perfect jumper, there were often two or more.

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The strategy worked, as Maryland’s two leading scorers cooled off and the rest of the Terps followed. Ohio State’s defense, and an offense that shot 17-for-29 on 3-pointers, led to a 91-69 defeat for the Terps.

When Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and his staff got back to their office the next morning, they wanted to figure out how to keep Cowan and Huerter productive while making the team's offense more efficient.

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While it’s hard not to go as much as possible to the two sophomores, who account for a little over 30 of the team’s 76.7 points a game, the Terps have been at their best when more players have produced.

In the team’s most recent victory, a 91-73 win over Iowa on Jan. 7, six players were in double figures, led by freshman center Bruno Fernando’s 21 points.

In two of their four Big Ten losses, a five-point defeat at home to Purdue in the league opener Dec. 1 and the 30-point loss at then-No. 1 Michigan State on Jan. 4, Cowan and Huerter were the only players in double figures.

“I think it’s gotten better. We changed some things going into the Michigan game,” Turgeon said Wednesday. “We shot a pretty good percentage on the road — 48 percent — the other night, so I was pleased with that. We’ve just got to move the ball, move our bodies a little bit better. I think that will help us.”

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Maryland and Minnesota, two short-handed teams, will meet at Xfinity Center hoping to keep NCAA tournament hopes alive.

On Thursday night, Turgeon will see whether there’s any carryover in the offensive execution when the Terps, whose three defeats in their past four games have all come on the road, host Minnesota, which comes into Xfinity Center having stopped its own three-game losing streak with a 95-84 victory at Penn State on Monday night.

Though Cowan had to carry the Terps throughout much of Monday night’s game in Ann Arbor, helping Maryland build a 14-point lead in the first half and, after the Wolverines erased it all, a seven-point lead five minutes into the second, Maryland needed others, Huerter in particular, to get hot to have any chance at victory.

After Michigan built its lead to 59-49 with 5:50 remaining, Huerter and the rest of the Terps gave Cowan what he needed. Senior wing Jared Nickens started what became an 18-7 run that culminated with Huerter hitting a pair of 3-pointers in the final 1:49, the second with 3.2 seconds to put Maryland in the lead.

Others, such as senior center Michal Cekovsky, whose dunk with 50 seconds left cut the deficit to three, as well as redshirt freshman forward Joshua Tomaic, whose solid screen along the lane freed Huerter for what the Terps thought to be the game-winning 3-pointer, also contributed.

The Terps' 3-point defense, last-second strategy and depth issues come into focus after a tough loss.

While the lead didn’t hold up after what Cowan conceded was a premature celebration on the bench during Michigan’s subsequent timeout, and a defensive breakdown when the unguarded inbounds pass sailed to guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who was fouled for what became the game-winning free throws, Turgeon liked what he saw from the offense.

“We made three huge mistakes late defensively, but you learn from it and you try to get better,” Turgeon said.

A couple of days of practice to correct those mistakes and reinforce the positives from their performance should help against the Gophers.

“We had a good day yesterday. We had a great day [Wednesday],” Turgeon said. “I think we’re getting better, that’s what I like. You see some guys are playing more minutes that are playing better minutes. I thought we competed better [at Michigan]. That’s all that matters to me.

After a 3-point shot by a previously cold Kevin Huerter helped Maryland erase a 10-point second half deficit, two free throws by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman with 1.2 seconds left gives the Wolverines the win.

“We lose the game by a point. We win the game by a point, everyone's talking about how good we are again. We’re 15-5, 4-3 in the league [had Maryland won], we’re right where we need to be. … We’ve got five or six weeks left in the [regular] season. We’ll just see how much better we can get, how much more confident we can get and moving forward.”

One of the ways Maryland has tried to take some of the defensive pressure off Cowan and Huerter is to go more inside. It seemed to work with both Fernando and Cekovsky against Iowa, before a flu bug bit the 6-foot-10 Angolan and slowed him the past two games.

“I think we’re using our size pretty good lately,” said Cekovsky, who had a career-high 18 points against Ohio State. “Me and Bruno and other guys like Josh.”

The expected return of redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley should also help. Wiley had perhaps the best offensive half of basketball he’s played at Maryland against Iowa — scoring 10 points and hitting four of five shots, including a pair of 3-pointers — before getting hurt early in the second half.

“He’s getting his wind back. He’s getting shots up. I’m confident that he’ll pick up where he left off,” Nickens said.

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