DURHAM, N.C. – Dez Wells never forgot the old games, because little children never forget their heroes. Raised in Raleigh, N.C., by a college basketball all-American, Wells grew up watching Duke and Maryland do battle, both in his backyard along Tobacco Road and in his future home in College Park. He penned letters to his favorite players, household names such as Shane Battier and Jay Williams, but never imagined he would become the one a new crop of kids might idolize.
After all, how could a once-Blue Devils fan imagine transforming into the one who carried the Terrapins?
Had Charles Mitchell’s baby hook dropped through the net, had several other breaks gone Maryland’s way, Wells’s legacy in this longtime rivalry might have been even further cemented. As it stands, he still delivered one of the all-time great performances last season during the ACC tournament and backed it up Saturday night in a 69-67 loss, scoring all 17 of his points during the second half and willing his team through another timeless meeting, the last one in the regular season in conference history.
“That was so much fun,” Wells said later. “I never imagined playing against Coach K in this type of atmosphere. This is a dream come true right now. Not the loss, but the atmosphere and having a great game like that.”
In the weeks leading to Saturday night, Wells often revisited Maryland-Duke games of the early 2000s, when a current coach was considered the unflappable star. Juan Dixon, now the special assistant on Coach Mark Turgeon’s staff, boosted the Terps to memorable victories earlier this century, and talked them through with Wells. How he played. Shots he took. Bliss he felt and heartbreak, too.
“I’m learning so much from him,” Wells said. “Being a part of this tradition is second to none.”
For 20 minutes, it seemed Wells would take a backseat to the action, a footnote as the chapter finished. Three fouls in the first half relegated him to the bench, where he watched the Terps hang on and enter intermission behind by just six points.
Then, like has happened in so many games since he transferred from Xavier, something clicked. The Blue Devils were stopping Maryland’s fast break high, trying to slice it off in the backcourt, so Turgeon gathered his players and pleaded, “Come on, if they’re going to do that, let’s make them pay.”
It might as well have been a direct challenge to Wells, for among the Terps no one else is better at going coast to coast. He did at Boston College, when he scored a career-high 33 points. He did it against Providence in the Paradise Jam, when similar foul issues beget a similarly dominant second half.
Wells shrugged off his second half – 17 points, 7 for 10 shooting — as the product of simple aggressiveness. But his teammates have started to take notice. When he gets in that mode, barreling down the floor and whipping past defenders like they’re bushes on a highway, few teams have found a way to stop it, and that includes the team for which he grew up rooting.
“I knew it was coming to him,” guard Nick Faust said. “He just needed one shot to go in and get him going. Foul trouble held him back a little later, but once he comes in and gets his mind-set, he’s able to get to the rim whenever he wants in transition.”
Later, reconciling the sinking feeling of sinking below .500 in ACC play with personal happiness, Wells began his interview session by calling Coach Mike Krzyzewski “in my eyes the greatest coach of all time,” at least during his lifetime. After all, no coach has won more Division I men’s basketball games. But for one half of one night, in the final ACC regular season game between the teams he grew up watching, Wells took center stage in what he later was asked whether it could be considered an “instant classic.”
“I hope so,” Wells said, laughing. “I hope so. I’d love to be a part of something like that.”