- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2020

COLLEGE PARK — Anthony Cowan Jr. walked down the bench and started hugging teammates, coaches and team managers. Cowan had just subbed out so fellow senior Travis Valmon, not part of Maryland’s normal rotation, could get on the court for the final 26 seconds on senior day.

The moment also provided Cowan a well-earned standing ovation for his final career game at Xfinity Center.

All of this was exactly why Cowan said he was returning for his senior season: He wanted to win.

“Just to be able to come out and do this for my team and everybody around me, you can’t get nothing better than this,” Cowan told the crowd at the postgame ceremony. “I want to say thank you to everybody involved … Let’s cut them nets down now!”

Cowan’s senior day culminated in the No. 9 Terrapins beating No. 25 Michigan 83-70 to earn a share of their first Big Ten regular-season title, marking their first conference championship since 2010, when they were a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon hugged Cowan so strongly after the game, he lifted the 6-foot point guard off the floor.

“When you’re sitting there and you want to win the league … I’m on the elliptical (thinking), ‘Wow, I hope I can take Anthony out and give him an ovation,’” Turgeon said. “Then you start to tear up a little bit while you’re working out, like, ‘Ah, he deserves it. I hope it works out.’ So for it to work out the way it did is really cool.”

Maryland finished the season 24-7 overall and 14-6 in the Big Ten, tying Wisconsin and Michigan State atop the league standings. The Terrapins come in last in the group tiebreaker and will be the No. 3 seed in this week’s Big Ten Tournament.

The Terrapins also avoided ending the season on a three-game losing streak after defeats to Michigan State and Rutgers.

The day began when Cowan, Valmon and Will Clark were honored as part of senior day festivities. Cowan said it was his first time seeing the video montages prepared for the event.

“That really got me emotional a little bit,” Cowan said. “And then just to go by and all my teammates told me that they appreciate me and they love me, that was huge for me. Like I said, that was just something that, really, you don’t forget.”

And the day ended with Maryland’s first conference championship, either regular season or postseason, of the Turgeon era.

Cowan was one of four Terrapins to score in double figures, with 20 points and eight assists. Eric Ayala had 19 points, Jalen Smith posted his latest double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds and Aaron Wiggins chipped in 15 points.

With 4:55 left, Ayala missed two free throws but grabbed his own rebound on the second and found Wiggins in the left corner. Wiggins’ 3-pointer re-established the Terrapins’ 10-point lead, the margin by which they controlled much of the game.

Turgeon said that was the moment he was sure Maryland would win.

“I miss and I grabbed it, I threw it to Aaron,” Ayala recalled. “And I looked and (saw) he made it, and I looked at Turge and we just start smiling, like ‘Alright, we’re gonna take that. That’s three. We’ll take it.’”

Down 72-62, the Wolverines couldn’t make a field goal for the next four minutes, allowing Maryland to seal it.

Maryland shot 56% from the field and 40% from 3-point range, while the defense clamped down to force nine Michigan turnovers and allow just four second-chance points. Maryland held the Wolverines’ star and second-leading scorer, Zavier Simpson, scoreless in the first, though he still finished with 13 points.

Rather than the slow start that’s become a hallmark of the Terrapins’ season, Maryland opened a comfortable lead by stringing together an 8-0 run midway through the first half. Ayala made 3 of 5 field goals in the first half, and eventually, Smith and Cowan got rolling as well.

Cowan dribbled himself open for shots, at one point weaving between two defenders in the lane to make a pick-and-roll layup. Smith was the beneficiary of a transition alley-oop and then a wide-open slam dunk with a minute left in the half.

David DeJulius, who came off the bench to lead Michigan with 20 points, went 3-for-3 at the free throw line with 3.7 seconds left in the first half. But Smith took the ball up court and sank a 30-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 41-28 halftime lead.

Michigan made nine of its first 13 field goal attempts in the second half and drew within three, 56-53, before Maryland pulled away.

Turgeon had his own moment of vindication by leading the Terrapins to a conference title for the first time in nine seasons on the job. Holding the microphone at the postgame ceremony, he asked the crowd, “Do you guys see the thousand-pound gorilla that was on my back, that left? Not here anymore?”

Turgeon later argued that it was more difficult to win a conference title than to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

“Just because people say you’re gonna be good doesn’t mean you’re gonna be good,” Turgeon said. “You gotta go out and earn it. Our family went through ups and downs like anybody else does, and we continued to fight. When you’re ranked high, you get everybody’s best shot. Sometimes that’s not physically exhausting as much as it is mentally exhausting.”

The Big Ten Tournament gets underway Wednesday in Indianapolis, but the Terrapins earned a double-bye and will play their first game Friday. The championship game is set for Sunday afternoon, hours before the NCAA Tournament selection show airs. Maryland has not won a conference tournament since the 2004 ACC Tournament.

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