As the Maryland men’s basketball team stood at center court at Xfinity Center draped in glitter confetti behind a shining trophy, relishing in capturing a share of the Big Ten regular season championship Sunday, head coach Mark Turgeon addressed the crowd.
“The 1000-pound gorilla that was on my back — it’s not here anymore,” he joked.
Following a hard-fought nine-game winning streak, Maryland was dealt a brutal stretch to end the regular season. Four games in 10 days, three of which were on the road. The team trailed by at least 14 points in each, resulting in three losses — two of which came in games where it had a chance to clinch the Big Ten regular season title — and much of the fan base that was riding a high wave with them suddenly crashed down to swallow them whole, back on a train of criticism and doubt and wondering if this team was as special as they thought.
But those doubts cast away Sunday. The Terps looked back in peak form as they captured the long-awaited title. They knew they could do it all along, even if no one else could. But there’s no denying the toll the pressure had started to take on the team.
“I just wanted to get it, we had it hanging over us for two weeks. We’re in first place for almost four weeks and it was hanging over us, but I knew our schedule was going to be really hard,” Turgeon said. “It’s a weight off. I am really proud of the guys and just really happy because they’ve really dedicated themselves starting when the season ended last year. The guys relaxed and played today.”
After the loss to Rutgers last Tuesday, Turgeon gave his team two days off to try to get his back in the right place both physically and emotionally.
At the start of the practice Friday, the head coach noticed Anthony Cowan Jr. was hanging his head a few times and wasn’t smiling.
“Okay, buddy. We feed off you, change your attitude,” Turgeon recalled telling the senior guard. “And he did. But he was feeling it, a lot of weight on his shoulders.”
From there, the entire team locked in for what Turgeon said was one of Terps’ best practices of the season.
“Coming off a couple losses, coming off a tough game where we’re not hitting shots, where teams are hitting everything they shoot — just seeing how tough mentally our guys are and the passion in the individuals,” sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins said of the practices leading up to Sunday. “That’s what I saw come out amongst us, guys were just locked in and they really wanted to win, really wanted to get a championship.”
Much of the team remarked that sophomore guard Eric Ayala helped set the tone, looking bouncier than ever while making threes and behind-the-back passes throughout the practice.
Turgeon looked over at assistant coach Matt Brady and remarked, “Where has this guy been?”
Come Sunday, Ayala had his best game of the season, scoring a season-high 19 points on a 60 percent shooting clip, along with a career-high seven rebounds.
Along with Ayala, four Terps — Cowan, Wiggins, Jalen Smith — scored in double-digits in the victory, shooting a combined 25-of-41 from the field (61 percent) in one of the team’s best offensive performances of the season. Ayala and Wiggins each made three triples on a 75 percent clip as well.
“Amongst us, we talk about a game where everybody is clicking. And I mean, we had one with Marquette early on in the season, everybody’s just clicking. But this was at another level today,” Ayala said. “Just to see the work that we put in. We get a lot of pressure, [Aaron and I] had a big freshman year shooting the ball. But I think tonight, it was just about winning. The pressure was off and we just said, ‘Come on man. Let’s go out there and play.’”
The Terps did just that in the 83-70 victory over the Wolverines to capture the program’s first share of a conference championship since 2009-10. They did so in a season that will likely see around 10 of the 14 teams from the Big Ten make the NCAA Tournament, with the conference regarded as one of, if not the deepest in the country.
After the final buzzer sounded, senior walk-on Travis Valmon threw the game ball up into the air as Xfinity Center erupted in cheers. Players and coaches gathered at center court, dancing and hugging in pure glee as championship shirts and hats were passed around.
As the team stood in front of the trophy before the nets were cut down, Cowan took his turn to say a few words.
The players are encouraged to stay off social media, especially before a big game, but Cowan couldn’t avoid the temptation of scrolling through Twitter before the Terps took on No. 25 Michigan.
“I don’t know why, I told myself don’t do it,” Cowan told the sea of fans standing before him during the championship celebration. “I was reading, ‘He ain’t gonna do that. He ain’t gonna do this. The team ain’t gonna do that.’ And to do be able to come out and do this with my team and everybody around, I mean you can’t get nothing better than this. So this is just a dream come true.”
The pressure had been lifted. Those voices had been silenced.
“Me and coach [Turgeon], we’ve been in this together. There has been terrible stuff said about us all the time,” Cowan told media after the game. “And like he said, when he said that 1000-pound monkey’s on his back, obviously I kind of felt the same way. But to go ahead and just win the first Big Ten championship is huge.”