Maryland vs. Duke: Terps ‘not just trying to treat this as another game’

As the Duke Blue Devils and Maryland Terrapins prepare for their last ever, regular season men's basketball game as ACC foes, former players and coaches revisit the two seasons that defined a heated rivalry. (Jonathan Forsythe, Tom LeGro and Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

As the team bus wound through ACC country several weeks ago, Maryland guard Dez Wells sat with a computer in his lap, watching old footage of the 2001 Final Four. He was raised a Duke fan in Raleigh, N.C., idolizing the Blue Devils, but circumstance had since brought him to College Park, where he crossed to the other side. Nothing better exemplifies history’s allure to Wells, a self-proclaimed student of the game, than when the Terrapins and their bitter enemies shared the floor.

“They didn’t win too many times against Duke back when I was younger,” Wells said. “But the times they did, me and my mom were pretty upset. It’s funny to see how the tables have turned.”

On Saturday evening, the final chapter of the rivalry will unfold at Cameron Indoor Stadium because when summer arrives, Maryland will pack up 60 years of ACC tradition and move to the Big Ten. To many current players, Saturday represents little more than the next game, another chance for the Terps to salvage something positive from an otherwise vexing season.

But the magnitude of this moment was not lost on the Terrapins, even to those who have never been jeered by the Cameron Crazies or felt the court vibrate beneath them from the bouncing bodies in the stands. It will be the 177th meeting between Maryland (14-11, 6-6 ACC) and No. 8 Duke (19-5, 8-3). In the foreseeable future, there might not be many more.

“This game means a lot to a lot of people,” Coach Mark Turgeon said Friday. “We’re not just trying to treat this as another game. It’s Duke.”

What more, really, could be said? As the 21st century turned, a new crop of stars took the rivalry to new heights. Standouts such as Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Jay Williams and Shane Battier. Legendary coaches Gary Williams and Mike Krzyzewski patrolling the sidelines. Thriller after thriller, enough to overtake ESPN Classic for a week.

Last year, in the teams’ final meeting in College Park, Terps fans stormed the court after an 83-81 Maryland victory. Point guard Seth Allen hit two late free throws to clinch the victory and scored 16 points. Testudo, the mascot, surfed through the crowd. During his postgame news conference, tears of joy leaked from Turgeon’s eyes. He knew how much it meant.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of emotions,” said Dixon, now a special assistant to Turgeon at Maryland. “We had a lot of great games in the past. It’s our last game. We just want to go down to Duke, enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the moment. We’re playing for our season right now.”

At least among the Terps, such desperation has scrubbed some of the luster away from Saturday’s game. Beating Duke twice in three meetings last season — Maryland also defeated the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament quarterfinals — might give the Terps a shot of confidence. But with Maryland lacking a signature victory in 2013-14 and struggling to climb above .500 in conference play, there’s little time for reflection.

“I haven’t personally paid any attention to it,” guard Nick Faust said. “I know it’s a big game for the school. This win would really help us. Getting this win could really give us a lot of confidence.”

Others, their minds perhaps greater steeped in history, understand the significance of the series as a whole. From the moment Turgeon stepped onto campus in May 2011, he immediately took notice of the anti-Duke shirts worn around College Park. Watching from the team bus during a road trip to North Carolina, Wells admired the freedom with which Dixon and his teammates played. Dixon, never one to back down from any challenge, appreciated the intensity of the Blue Devils’ fan base but said he was never intimidated.

Things are different for Dixon now. He wears a suit on game days. He coaches from the sideline. In a way, he represents the bridge between the rivalry’s heyday from last decade, when Duke and Maryland won national titles in back-to-back seasons, and the current crop of Terps, bracing for one last game.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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