- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2020

COLLEGE PARK — The video dropped 10 months ago — the one in which Anthony Cowan Jr. spoke to Maryland fans over a swell of dramatic music, the one where he said in a voiceover, “You and me, we have unfinished business.”

Cowan released that video to announce he was withdrawing from the NBA draft to return for his senior season. He made clear the goal he had in mind: Winning. Championship banners.

He took the first step Sunday when the Terrapins won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, beating Michigan to finish their conference slate 14-6. It marked the program’s first conference title of any kind in the Mark Turgeon era. During the postgame celebration, the senior guard told the crowd he checked social media before the game.

“I don’t know why. I told myself, ‘Don’t do it,’ but I was all on Twitter,” Cowan said as his supporters laughed. “I was reading, ‘He ain’t gonna do that, he ain’t gonna do this, the team ain’t gonna do that.’”

LIke many overachievers, Cowan relishes showing up the skeptics. He seems to find critics everywhere, from Twitter to the press.

From his youth to his senior year, the chip on Cowan’s shoulder has remained firmly in place, even through a season that culminated with first-team All-Big Ten honors Monday for Cowan and teammate Jalen Smith, a season that saw him passing names like Walt Williams and Tom McMillen on Maryland’s career scoring list and moving into fifth on the program’s all-time assists leaderboard.

ESPN basketball analyst Seth Greenberg called Cowan “the Mariano Rivera of college basketball.” Now it will be up to the Terrapins’ closer and senior leader to take them on a deep postseason run — the only thing missing from his Maryland resume.

‘Exactly what I’m looking for’

Cowan grew up in a basketball family. His father, Anthony Cowan Sr., and uncle, Thomas Skeeter, both Maryland alumni, coached AAU teams. His younger sister Alex Cowan plays for Wagner, a Division I program on New York’s Staten Island.

His hometown of Bowie, Maryland, is less than a half-hour away from the university and the basketball program he admired throughout his childhood. He was only 4 years old when Juan Dixon led Maryland to the 2002 national championship, and he remained a big Dixon fan as he grew into a similar mold as a smallish point guard, just 6 feet tall.

When Sean McAloon took the head coach position at St. John’s College High School, he saw Cowan play in the first D.C.-area AAU game he scouted. McAloon recalled learning that Cowan had committed to conference rival Good Counsel.

“And I was so depressed, because I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly what I’m looking for,’” said McAloon, now the coach at IMG Academy in Florida.

But after Cowan’s freshman year, his coach at Good Counsel left for another job and Cowan sought a transfer. McAloon said it “felt like it was Christmas” when the Cowan family called him. McAloon loved Cowan’s passing ability, his confidence as a competitor — and didn’t mind that he was undersized.

“I think people look down at him and immediately think you can take him in the post, or immediately think you can back him down or you can shoot over him,” McAloon said. “Ant’s learned how to be a pest, especially defensively, and take away things from people by using his quickness and using his brain. He uses it to his advantage.”

His stature also caught the attention of another coach: Turgeon.

A relationship evolves

It’s fair to say Turgeon, a 5-foot-10 point guard for Kansas in the 1980s, saw something of himself in Cowan when he first watched him play at an AAU tournament.

“First time I saw Anthony, maybe because I’m little, I knew I wanted him,” Turgeon said. “I was like, ‘All right, I love that kid.’ Because he could do a lot of things and he had moxie about him and he knew how to play. It was really a no-brainer for me.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Toward the end of Cowan’s sophomore season, the 2017-18 campaign in which Maryland missed the postseason altogether, Turgeon said Cowan “didn’t like me and I didn’t like him.” Cowan wasn’t the kind of all-around point guard Turgeon wanted him to be. The coach knew there was more in him.

After a sitdown with Turgeon, and with the help of assistant coaches Matt Brady and DeAndre Haynes, Cowan flourished.

“Our relationship’s grown, obviously, as it’s gone on,” Turgeon said. “And he’s become an extension of me as his career’s gone on, which is great. It helps me coach.”

When Maryland took down Michigan State on the road Feb. 15 by scoring the final 14 points of the game — 11 of those from Cowan — a video of Turgeon’s postgame speech to his team made the rounds online. Turgeon said he was criticized for signing Cowan because the guard was “an A-10 player and didn’t belong at Maryland,” a reference to the mid-major Atlantic 10 Conference.

He looked at Cowan and asked, “Who was right, Ant?” The team cheered as they slapped five.

“I just wanted to make sure that everybody knew that, hey, he didn’t come in here as some guy that was supposed to be some All-American-type player, and he’s made himself one,” Turgeon later told reporters. “It’s just by grit and determination. I want the younger guys to know that, and they can work and do things that Anthony’s done in his career.”

The postseason grind

In the afterglow of Sunday’s 83-70 victory over Michigan, Anthony Cowan Sr. took pictures of his son with teammates, family, even his pastor. The proud dad said the moment was in the making for a long time.

“Obviously there’s still work to be done,” Cowan Sr. said. “There’s still a lot more basketball to go. But we’ll take this moment for about a day, and then it’s back to the grind. As a family, back to pins and needles.”

The Terrapins went 1-2 in NCAA Tournament games and 0-3 in the Big Ten Conference Tournament in Cowan’s first three years. But this team has the benefit of the most complete version of Cowan yet, as both a player and a leader. All season, Turgeon and players extolled how Cowan stepped up as a vocal leader, putting his naturally quiet nature aside.

Earlier this season, sophomore Aaron Wiggins rattled off a litany of what he and his teammates trust Cowan to do, everything from scoring and creating open shots off the dribble to playmaking and creating for others.

“He just steps up in big moments late in games and it comes in handy,” Wiggins concluded. Then he laughed. “I think every team wants an Anthony Cowan Jr.”

Cowan’s final legacy remains unwritten until the Terrapins embark on their postseason. As the No. 3 seed, they’ll play their first Big Ten Tournament game Friday, and two days later, they’ll learn their NCAA Tournament fate.

As Cowan reflected on his time with the program he idolized as a boy, he said he was most proud of the connections he’d made — the teammates, the coaches, the fans, the folks who worked in the arena.

“Points and assists are nice,” he said, “but I think relationships last a lot longer than that.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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