NEW YORK — Most of Maryland’s gold uniforms had been stacked in the middle of the locker room a half-hour after the team’s 59-54 loss to Wisconsin on Thursday in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, but sophomore point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. was still sitting in his game shorts on a couch.
He pulled a red hood over his red eyes. His voice quivered. A manager sat by him in support. He had been Maryland’s ironman all season. No player in the league had come close to matching his 37 minutes per game, and it’s unlikely any endured as many late-game letdowns, with eight losses of six points or fewer coming in. But this time, Cowan finally looked broken.
He replayed the final seconds in his mind, trying to document this low moment in Maryland basketball history. The Terrapins trailed by three with five seconds left and had an inbound opportunity 30 feet from their own basket.
With no timeouts remaining, redshirt junior Dion Wiley, the inbounder, waited for the play to materialize. Cowan was supposed to back-screen but didn’t. Sophomore guard Kevin Huerter, with Wisconsin forward Khalil Iverson hanging all over him, ran toward the ball but wasn’t expecting Wiley to pass. Everyone seemed to stop and look at each other. Wiley looked panicked.
“Anthony!” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon screamed as his point guard looked confused and waited on the other side of the floor. Wiley eventually threw a soft pass that was taken away by Iverson. Turgeon turned to his bench and stomped his feet.
“I didn’t really get the play, and I just messed it up,” Cowan said somberly afterward.
Maryland had clinched its ninth loss by six points or less — as well as its seventh loss in 11 games overall — and Turgeon bowed his head as he walked off the floor and toward an offseason that will bring intensifying questions and scrutiny. Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes are officially dead, and the autopsy of this season began almost immediately as Turgeon took the podium afterward.
When he was asked whether it was surprising that a broken inbounds play would happen so late in the season, Turgeon replied: “It’s disappointing, yeah. It’s disappointing. But . . . it’s disappointing.”
He couldn’t find the words. In a season full of late-game blunders — allowing Michigan to use a half-court heave to score the game-winning points in January; surrendering several pivotal offensive rebounds in the final minutes of a loss at Penn State in February; coming away empty with broken offensive sets on the final possessions of résumé-crushing setbacks at Indiana and Nebraska, not to mention at home against Michigan State — this debacle topped them all.
But the entire game was emblematic of the season. Maryland could never be faulted for its effort — it led just once but fought back to tie the game four times in the final 4:18, including on a jumper by Huerter that knotted the score at 53 with 1:23 left.
Then Maryland (19-13) returned to its self-destructive nature. It gave up two offensive rebounds on one possession that led to a Wisconsin basket with less than a minute left; Huerter missed the first of two free throws with nine seconds remaining when he could have tied the game.
“Whether it was a rebound or a missed shot, whatever it was, we just couldn’t get it. It’s kind of the way the year has gone,” Turgeon said.
Before Wisconsin (15-17) could go up by three with two free throws of its own, Turgeon called his final timeout and told his players to expect a foul on their next possession. His team would need to tie the game off an inbounds pass. Somewhere there was a miscommunication between the coach and Cowan. It was an inexplicable mistake that left Turgeon’s players defending him against the criticism that surely will continue to mount.
“Coach Turgeon is going to take a lot of heat for it. Everybody is going to point at him. Everybody is going to look at him. I’m sure he probably took the blame up here a couple of minutes ago,” said Huerter, who finished with 20 points. “But Coach Turgeon doesn’t miss rebounds. Coach Turgeon doesn’t miss a free throw. Coach Turgeon doesn’t throw the ball away . . . so this loss is on everybody, especially the players.”
The players don’t know what comes next. Maryland could play in the National Invitation Tournament, but it will have to wait a week before the bids are announced. There are more pressing matters. Maryland is conducting an internal review into allegations that former player Diamond Stone received illegal payments from an agent. It is waiting for decisions from sophomore Justin Jackson and freshman Bruno Fernando on their potential NBA futures. It faces the pressure of next season, where a turnaround is a must to alleviate the friction between Turgeon and the fan base.
“It hurts badly. We’re just going to go back and keep working and see whatever is next,” said Fernando, who finished with 12 points.
Turgeon walked into the locker room after the loss and, as Cowan put it, told the team that he was frustrated. He told them he knew how frustrated they were. At one point on Thursday, Turgeon had screamed “box out!” and punched the air so violently that a pin flew off his suit jacket and onto the floor. An assistant had to crawl on the playing surface to pick it up.
The frustration spread into the crowd.
“Wake up, Maryland!” one fan behind the bench yelled in the first half.
“What else is new?!” another fan yelled Turgeon’s way after the seventh-year coach had taken a timeout just 90 seconds into the second half after the Badgers had scored five quick points. But it was only fitting that the final, bitter pang belonged to Turgeon, yelling at Cowan — his floor general — to make the proper read in the final seconds. It was a last-ditch plea to fix a play, to fix a season, but it never came.
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