The late-game demons had come again, hovering behind the Maryland men’s basketball bench as the fans slumped back into their seats and a silence came over Comcast Center. The court storm would have to wait after the torrent of mistakes, each one allowing visiting fifth-ranked Virginia to move closer into contention. Overtime still remained, but it again felt like the Terrapins were again headed toward emotional ruin. “People were sad,” forward Jake Layman said later. “Almost in tears at that point.”
What followed over the next five minutes may help restructure Maryland’s disappointing season at the last possible moment. Perhaps it will only provide a brief respite from the heartbreak. At the very least, a 75-69 victory here Sunday afternoon wrapped up 61 years of ACC tradition on the most positive note possible for the hosts, with a floor flooded by thumping fans as the players filed into the exits, drenched in sweat from the celebration and relieved that another one hadn’t slipped away.
“It would have been devastating if we had lost another one,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Clemson was about as devastating as it gets. We had to walk up three flights of stairs. It felt like 100 after that game.”
That afternoon, exactly one week ago, the Terps lost in double overtime at Littlejohn Coliseum, the latest in a seemingly endless line of close-but-no-cigars. They had lost to Duke and Syracuse, both by two points, both when they had possession with a chance to win at the end.
Those memories all came flooding back just before the bonus period, when Virginia forward Anthony Gill was left wide open for a lob off an inbound pass that tied it at 64. Turgeon had made the calculated decision to foul up three points, so Malcolm Brogdon intentionally missed his second free throw and Maryland knocked the rebound out of play. All the jubilation was sapped from the building, except among the small cluster of Cavs orange on the visitor’s bench.
“Guys, I don’t ever foul,” Turgeon said. “I don’t ever foul. But it’s been the strangest year I’ve ever been a part of and I did it backwards. I said well I’m going to do things backwards today because we haven’t won any close games. We got to come up with he rebound and we didn’t. They ran a great play.
“We were down. I was down. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
The resolve Maryland showed during overtime, outscoring Virginia 11-5, reflects a team having grown from its close failures last month. Point guard Seth Allen was dominant and under control, avoiding quick jumpers to stick two layups and blocking Brogdon at the rim on the defensive end. When Evan Nolte converted an old-fashioned three-pointer, the Terps were precise in responding, throwing a duck-in post-up to Wells, who finished with 18 points.
Not since Dec. 30, 2013 had Virginia allowed this many points, and Maryland nearly became the first ACC team to reach 50 percent shooting against Coach Tony Bennett’s stingy pack-line defense. Allen finished with a team-high 20 points. Evan Smotrycz kept the Terps around early, with 13 in the first half. Wells and Layman hit all eight of their respective free-throw attempts.
“We didn’t want to let this one slip away,” Allen said. “We took charge as a team. We said we weren’t going to lose. We were determined.
“As tough as it was, it brought us closer together. We have each other’s backs more and more. You could see it defensively. We needed losses like that. We didn’t need all of them. We didn’t need three of them. But a game like this, it really helps us. We’re finishing games better and we’re practicing harder.”
A sellout crowd came to witness history collide with the future. Gary Williams, Walt Williams, Tom McMillen and Juan Dixon signed autographs before the game, and the line of fans stretched around the concourse. The newspapers shaken during pregame introductions read “61,” as in the number of years Maryland spent in the ACC before jumping to the Big Ten. In a particularly quiet moment, an hour or so before tip-off, a cameraman trained his lens just beyond the free throw line, where the “ACC” logo will soon be no more.
The Terps will get at least one game in the conference tournament this week, where they feel they can do some damage given their play of late. If North Carolina State beats Boston College at home Sunday night, Maryland will be the No. 8 seed and face Florida State. If the Wolfpack loses, Maryland will be seventh and face the winner of the No. 10-No. 15 game.
Either way, beating the Cavaliers should place them into the National Invitational Tournament for the second straight season, an underwhelming conclusion given the expectations levied on the Terps, both from fans and inside the program. But for one afternoon all the past frustration was cast aside, traded for a revelry worthy of the final ACC game.
“We felt like we could play with anybody in our league,” Turgeon said. “Today, we felt like we can play anybody in our league and we feel like can beat them. There’s a difference.”