“But that daggone Jordan,” Lefty Driesell said through the telephone, “Superman that he is…”
And so went another trip down memory lane with the legendary Maryland coach. This time, Driesell had called to reminisce about the Terrapins and the Tar Heels, longtime foes who on Tuesday will face each other for the last time in a regular-season game as ACC teams, and quickly Michael Jordan came to mind.
“We had the ball in the frontcourt with about two or three seconds left, down one point,” Driesell began. Maryland had been working on this particular play in practice where Adrian Branch would pop off a double screen and shoot the jumper. So Driesell inserted his son, Chuck, who had run the play perfectly in practice.
“Well,” Driesell said, “Michael Jordan anticipated it, so he jumped out. He was at the top of the key because he thought Adrian Branch was going to get the shot. But that daggone Jordan turned around after he didn’t intercept the pass going to Adrian and he blocked Chuck’s shot, so they won by one. We had a lot of barnburners down there.”
The series dates back to Feb. 5, 1923, when the Terps lost to the Tar Heels, 26-20. At the time, the Washington Post called it “bitterly fought,” and many games since have followed a similar script. Lately, it has been lopsided. North Carolina leads the all-time series, 121-57, and has won seven straight, including sweeping three games last season. Since coming to College Park, Mark Turgeon has never beaten his mentor and old friend Roy Williams, so Driesell called the third-year coach to say, “Put the last defeat on them.”
It will be a bittersweet evening for Turgeon and Williams. When Williams took over for Larry Brown at Kansas, he retained Turgeon as an assistant for four seasons and they talk regularly. Not so much this week, as the teams have been planning for each other, but still regularly.
The rivalry with North Carolina, Turgeon said, compares with many big games at his previous stops, like Jacksonville State-Troy, Wichita State-Missouri State, Wichita State-Creighton and Texas-Texas A&M. The Terps still have one game against Duke and two versus Virginia left this season, but in some ways Tuesday night represents the beginning of the end, one last game against the old guard they will soon leave behind.
“It’s been a great game over the years, 60 years or whatever, playing North Carolina,” Turgeon said. “North Carolina’s one of the premier programs in the country. It’s a chapter that’s going to end. We’re just trying to win the game. I think coming off the Duke-Syracuse game the other night, there’s new rivalries that can be born. We’re going to lose a great rivalry here with North Carolina but I’m sure we’re going to have a few good ones in the future.”
Said Williams, on Monday’s ACC coaches teleconference: “Well, I still think of Maryland as an ACC school and I’ll always think that way. I’m old-fashioned, old-school. We’ve had some great, great games with them. I was here as an assistant for 10 years. I hate to see them leaving.”
In the moment, history will take a backseat. Both teams, already underwhelming at times this season, are treading water in league play, with Maryland at 5-4 and North Carolina at 4-4. A loss at the Smith Center would set the Tar Heels even further back, while another road defeat for the Terps would make their upcoming stretch (vs. Florida State, at Virginia, at Duke) even tougher.
But for those nostalgics like Driesell, Tuesday will also represent the end of an era, one last story in the book that’s taken six decades to script.
“I think for guys that are 80 years old or 65 or 68 years old who have been following it, yeah it’ll mean a lot to them,” Turgeon said. “We understand that. We’re going to go down there and do the best we can. We’re playing to win. But we’re not going to talk about that with our guys and put pressure on them. It’d be great in the history books to win the first [ACC meeting in 1954] and win the last one.”