Late in No. 9 Maryland’s win over Nebraska, head coach Mark Turgeon made a fascinating decision. With his team leading by three with under 15 seconds to play, Turgeon decided to intentionally foul Nebraska’s Cam Mack as opposed to letting him attempt a three.
Mack, a 58 percent free throw shooter, calmly stepped to the line and made both cutting the lead to 71-70. While it’s not uncommon for teams to foul when up by three in the late stages, fouling with over 10 seconds remaining is less seen.
“He (Mack) is not a great foul shooter. I didn’t want him to make a three on Stix, so that’s why I did it,” Turgeon said defending his decision.
On the ensuing possession, Maryland got the ball in the hands of their senior leader and point guard Anthony Cowan. Cowan, a 78 percent free throw shooter, missed the front end of the one-and-one and Nebraska miraculously had the ball with a chance to win the game.
Mack used a crossover to create separation from Cowan, finding a path to the rim. He jumped up off his left leg for the game-winning layup but was met by Terps’ big man Jalen Smith. Smith blocked the shot then recovered the loose ball with 0.7 seconds remaining, allowing Maryland to hang on.
“I just tried to make a play on the ball. Coach Turgeon always emphasizes in practice for me defensively, trying to get blocks on the ball. Help out my teammates,” Smith said. “I just saw him go up and I tried to take it off the rim.”
Smith’s block allowed Maryland to keep their lead atop the Big Ten and their undefeated home record but after a half where his team almost blew a 14 point lead, many are wondering if Turgeon made the right decision to foul as early as he did.
And based on the results, the answer is no. The extra possessions and stoppage of play made it easier for Nebraska to chip away and have a chance to win the game. Had they let Mack shoot a three in that scenario, then the Terps could at least hold for the last shot and not lose in regulation.
But based on statistics, Turgeon’s decision is not that far fetched and actually makes a lot of sense. Before those free throws, Mack was shooting 1-9 from the field and 0-2 from the line. As a 58 percent foul shooter, there is only a 33 percent chance he makes both shots and cuts the lead to one.
Conversely, a 78 percent free throw shooter like Cowan has only a 22 percent chance to miss the front end and a 60 percent chance to make both. Cowan was also 9-11 from the line on the night.
The Terps should not have even been in that position, to begin with. On the prior two possessions Cowan turned the ball over and then Eric Ayala missed the front end of a one-and-one.
On a night where Ayala had a season-high 16 points, three Terps amassed a double-double for the first time since 2001, and Turgeon picked up his 200th win at Maryland, the vibe was peculiar after the game
“Definitely was a weird locker room. We didn’t know if we should celebrate or kinda be down on ourselves,” Cowan said. “At the end of the day, it’s the Big Ten. Every game gonna be difficult and just gotta be better.”
Maryland will have to make free throws and execute better when they travel to Michigan State on Saturday.
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