Anthony Cowan — commemorative hat on, T-shirt draped over his shoulders — tipped the hardware forward, giving himself a better view at the Big Ten regular-season title trophy he was about to lift.
He had dreamed of that moment: the roaring crowd, the confetti, the cutting of the nets soon to come. But he also dreamed of more moments stacked on top, dreamed of Big Ten and NCAA tournament runs, rings and a lasting legacy for his senior year with Maryland men’s basketball. He spoke of unfinished business and how that regular-season title was just the first step.
Unfinished business is all that’s left now. That first step proved to be the ultimate one. As the coronavirus spreads, the additional dreams were cast aside when those tournaments were canceled.
But at least he has that first one, that moment with Travis Valmon next to him, peering down at the trophy before the celebration kicked off in earnest. At least he got there, with the Xfinity Center crowd soon mobbing the court. At least he and the Terps got that sendoff, a memorable way to conclude a 24-7 season. At least he has that net, and that trophy, and soon that banner hanging above the court he commanded for four seasons.
“I don’t know if, Anthony, if it’s really hit him yet that it’s over. I think he was kind of numb the first couple days; he doesn’t really say a lot anyway,” coach Mark Turgeon said on a conference call Monday. “But it was a great storybook ending for him and his career.”
There could’ve been more chapters to that book. And that nags in Turgeon’s mind, the “what if?” situations where he thinks about how his team clicked for so much of the year. He knows, though, as he sees the continual increase in coronavirus patients, that the NCAA made the right move. He doesn’t begrudge the sudden end to the season.
But still: “What if?”
What if the Terps got to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament, and what if they had the chance to make a run in March Madness? They could’ve been adding more than just a regular-season conference title banner to the rafters.
“We know we had a really good team, we know that we could’ve maybe done something — could’ve lost in the first round, could’ve advanced to the Final Four, who knows,” Turgeon said. “We’ll never know.”
That’s the case for teams all around the country; it’s not unique to College Park. It doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, though. So the squad met Friday, planning to discuss logistics — everything from navigating online classes to travel.
Then Turgeon started down a different path, one that led around the room to each player. That’s when he realized why his team finished 24-7 and won a share of the Big Ten title — there were Cowan and Jalen Smith, but there were all the players behind the scenes, too.
“Everyone in the room did everything they possibly could to be successful,” Turgeon said. “Sometimes when you’re right in the middle of it, you don’t see that.”
That end-of-year meeting wasn’t supposed to be then, the day when Maryland should’ve been tipping off in the conference tournament some-500 miles away in Indiana. But situations out of the team’s control made it so, so they laughed and cried and remembered the great times they had this season.
Among those great moments was that win in Bloomington, beating Indiana by one to prove they could win tight games in road environments — before proving it again against Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota. Turgeon took pride in how his squad adapted mid-season to a new offensive style, with Smith solely playing the five. The coach loved that hounding defense, the trademark of his team.
But nothing comes close to March 8.
Nothing compares to the time ticking down, withdrawing Cowan from the floor for one more curtain-call and lifting the 6-foot guard up in a hug. The confetti, the fans, the nets, the trophy — it will all last and last in the minds of Turgeon and his players.
“I don’t think you could’ve written it any better,” Turgeon said. “It was a great ending.”
Shortly after that celebration, in the media room with his net hanging around his neck, Cowan’s focus turned sharply to his next task, as it so often does: “We got a lot more work to do,” he said.
Cowan’s career finished on the Xfinity Center court about an hour before he uttered those words. He didn’t know it at the time. He didn’t know there would be no more Maryland games to play, no more prizes to chase.
But at least he had that moment, the quiet before the storm of celebration, when he got to lean the Big Ten regular-season championship trophy forward and take it all in. At least he had that.