DURHAM, N.C. – As the heartbreak set in, the Maryland men’s basketball players bent over and squatted down onto the Cameron Indoor Stadium court, like children praying for an alternate ending. It seemed so unfair in the moment, like something supernatural had betrayed the Terrapins on Saturday night, because as Charles Mitchell’s game-winning shot teetered on, above, around and anywhere but through the hoop, only some unseen, made-up, deified force could be blamed for what happened next.
“Call it the Duke gods,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said, while Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski added, “Sometimes the basketball gods fool around with you.”
If the bitterness eventually subsides, if the torment doesn’t linger through the coming years, Maryland’s players might just reflect on their 69-67 loss to Duke with fondness. The final regular season ACC matchup between these rivals had everything. The pregame narrative was replete with history, memories of past games flooding back, but what happened here at Cameron Indoor Stadium added another classic to a series coming to a close.
And so the Terps, as they faced the cameras and microphones, were presented with a conundrum. They had come so close – centimeters even, or at least an unfortunate roll of the basketball – to upsetting the No. 8 Blue Devils on the road, to making the 177th meeting with Duke one of the greatest yet. In this manner, disappointment reigned.
“A win or a loss here is going to be tough either way,” sophomore forward Jake Layman said. “The way it ended, it made it a little harder.”
But it was also an instant classic, the type of game future generations of Maryland basketball fans will watch with awe. Those same kids will grow up trying to create new rivalries within the Big Ten, instead of assimilating into established ones, but who will dare forget Jabari Parker slamming down the dunk that put Duke ahead, or Maryland guard Nick Faust’s thunderous put-back dunk, or Turgeon and Krzyzewski jawing at each other across the scorer’s table, or Mitchell collapsing to the ground after his hook shot bounced away?
In this manner, the Terps felt fortunate to be included.
“Being a part of this tradition is second to none,” said Dez Wells, who scored all 17 of his points in the second half. “This game, this rivalry is so much bigger than the 13 guys who are on this team. This goes all the way back to the ‘70s when Len Elmore had almost a trip double or Joe Smith scored 40 points. This rivalry is so much bigger than everybody on this team. We had to come out and play for everybody who’s been a part of this rivalry and compete as hard as we could.”
That, ultimately, was the takeaway for Maryland, a team which can ill-afford moral victories at this stage of the season but was all too happy to, at the very least, lug a few back to College Park. A six-point halftime deficit, which could have been larger given the foul trouble Wells, Mitchell and Evan Smotrycz were in, had been erased. Even an early Duke run in the second half, which put the Blue Devils up nine points, was answered.
Wells entered his trademark bulldozer mode, careering down the court like he did during his 30-point ACC tournament quarterfinal performance last season, and kept silencing Cameron Crazies every time they frothed with excitement. At one point, he cupped his ears to the crowd, to the fans he once counted himself among, as if to say, “Let me hear it. I want more noise.”
It was never louder than at the end, when chants of “A-C-C” and “not our rivals” rang out after Amile Jefferson stuck one of two free throws to clinch the game, but these were cheers of relief, shouted with the knowledge that Maryland almost somehow stole the ending to a matchup 90 years in the making. The Terps had come so close, in a season of coming so close, and now unless the conference tournament draw proves favorable for a rematch, there might not be any more to digest of this historic, crazy, intense slice of college basketball.
“Yeah I’m going to miss it like crazy,” Turgeon said. “What a great place to come play. Reminds me of playing at Kansas, and coaching against one of the all-time best. I’m going to miss it. That was fun. We played tonight for Maryland. We didn’t play it for ourselves, we played it for all former coaches, all former players, all former students. We knew we weren’t getting them at our place. This was our one chance. We know what it means to Maryland fans. I can’t be more proud of our guys. I hope every Maryland fan feels the same way. I know we’re upset that we lost, but our guys gave it all they had.”
Said Krzyzewski: “Over the years, the players, the coaches and the teams that have shared these unforgettable moments, I don’t really know what it’s worth. It won’t be replicated. There will be other rivalries and other games. It started with Lefty [Driesell] really. You talk about all these years, [Bob] Wade, then Gary [Williams] did an incredible job, and now Mark. The one consistent factor is that they have been great games.”