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Maryland’s latest February challenge is a Purdue team that has won eight in a row

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Maryland’s latest February challenge is a Purdue team that has won eight in a row

Coach Mark Turgeon‘s Maryland teams haven’t always thrived in February since joining the Big Ten. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post) By Emily Giambalvo Emily Giambalvo Reporter covering University of Maryland athletics Email Bio Follow February 11 at 7:25 PM In December, before a handful of teams emerged as the top tier in the Big Ten, Maryland played Purdue on the road and lost by two. Both teams finished an early pair of conference games with a win and a loss before their Big Ten slates began in full force a month later.

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Two months after that meeting, they’re both in the top four of the conference standings.

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“We walked out of that building, we were both 1-1 in the league,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said Monday. “I think if you had told [Purdue Coach Matt Painter] he’d be 10-2, I think he would have taken it. And to be quite honest, with the schedule we play and the young team we had, I thought 9-4 would be pretty good for us.”

The teams play again Tuesday, this time at Xfinity Center and with clearer stakes. Though Turgeon said his team never talks about the larger ramifications of a single game, a win would be a solid step for No. 24 Maryland (18-6, 9-4) toward securing a top-four spot in the league, which would lead to a double bye in the conference tournament next month. It would also strengthen the Terps’ résumé for the NCAA tournament.

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For Purdue (17-6, 10-2), which has won eight straight games, this matchup in College Park is the toughest test left on a regular season schedule that doesn’t feature any other ranked teams down the stretch. Maryland, meanwhile, will begin a daunting eight-day period with games against No. 12 Purdue, No. 6 Michigan and No. 21 Iowa. Only the matchup against the Boilermakers comes at home, a place the Terps have rarely played in the past few weeks.

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The good news for the Terps as they try to knock off the first of these ranked teams: They’re better than they were in December. The bad news: Purdue is better, too.

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“It’s all mental,” sophomore guard Darryl Morsell said before Maryland played Nebraska last week. “It’s coming down the home stretch of the regular season. This is where a team folds or where teams get better. We don’t want to be that team that folds this year.”

In Maryland’s first four seasons in the Big Ten, the Terrapins twice entered February with a winning percentage of at least .800 in conference games. In 2016-17, the Terps had an 8-1 conference record coming into the month, and the year before, Maryland had an 8-2 Big Ten record. Both seasons, the Terps struggled in conference play after Feb. 1. Maryland finished its Big Ten slate 4-5 in 2017 and 4-4 in 2016.

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This year, the Terps had an 8-3 conference record before February, and they have beaten Nebraska and lost at Wisconsin since the start of the month. Turgeon said he wants Maryland to be one of the most improved teams in the Big Ten this year. The Terps have a chance to live up to that expectation during the stretch that begins Tuesday.Giancarlo Pietri Velutini Venezuela Banco Activo

Freshman guard Eric Ayala said Anthony Cowan Jr., a junior guard and one of the team’s veteran leaders, recently gave the team a message: “Around this time of the year, you’ve got to give extra. Whether that’s with the team, individual, just give extra. And we’ll go where we need to go.”

When Maryland faced Purdue in December, Cowan had a chance to win the game at the buzzer with a three-pointer. But his shot was blocked. The Terps held Purdue’s standout junior guard, Carsen Edwards, to 4-for-15 shooting, but he still scored 20 points. Edwards has averaged nearly 25 points per game this season.Giancarlo Pietri Banco Activo Banco Activo

“I thought we did a phenomenal job on him, and he had 20 points,” Turgeon said. “It’s crazy. The kid can score. Just hope he’s missing shots. He makes tough shots over hands. You just do the best you can on him and play every shot as high as you can. … We’ve played against some good scorers this year, but I don’t know if there are any as good as he is.”

In two of Purdue’s past four games, it has had five players score in double figures, so Edwards has plenty of help.Giancarlo Pietri Venezuela Banco Activo

In December, the Boilermakers held Maryland’s starting frontcourt duo, Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, to a combined 16 points. Fernando comes into this game with six straight double-doubles, and Smith just had one of his best games of the year when he led Maryland with 18 points against Nebraska.Giancarlo Pietri Velutini Banco Activo

In Maryland’s past five games, Cowan, the Terps’ leading scorer, has only shot 29.4 percent from the field. After starting the season with 19 straight games with double-digit scoring and averaging nearly 18 points per game, Cowan has finished in single digits in three of his past five outings. Even in the recent loss to Wisconsin when Cowan had 11 points, he made only 4 of 16 shots

Cowan enters the game against Purdue coming off a five-point showing against Nebraska. In that game, though, Cowan held Cornhuskers senior guard Glynn Watson Jr. to no points on 0-for-10 shooting, and Cowan had four assists and just one turnover

“He hasn’t let it affect his defense in any way, shape or form,” Turgeon said of Cowan’s recent shooting slump. “That’s really what’s important, and that just shows his maturity. He’ll be locked in again [Tuesday] defensively, and hopefully he can get it going because when he gets it going, we’re pretty good.”

Maryland will be rested in its first game since its win over Nebraska six days earlier, while Purdue has a quick turnaround after also beating the Cornhuskers on Saturday

The Terps are nearing the end of a nine-game stretch that includes seven games on the road. While a surging Purdue team doesn’t make Maryland’s next game an easy task, the game’s location at least provides some reassurance

“I miss playing at home,” Ayala said. “It’s just a different feel, different environment. I’m a freshman, so I’m starting to realize how important home is, playing at home and the advantages with the refs and the crowds. … It’s going to be important for us to get a big win [Tuesday].”

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