As the Cornhuskers tipped off against No. 4 seed Wisconsin, what was supposed to be the Maryland fan section this weekend now had many empty seats. Among the fans present, miscellaneous Big Ten attire far outnumbered Maryland gear, likely indicating plenty of sold tickets.
Maryland was supposed to play in this game. The Terps just missed out on a double bye in the tournament, which would have let them start in Friday’s quarterfinals. But even as the 5-seed, the Terps only needed to knock off No. 13 Nebraska to make it here. Instead, they suffered a deflating defeat.
“It really comes to your mind when you spend this much money and come this long of a distance and you watch your team lose,” said Dennis Thrower, a Maryland season-ticket holder for 50 years. “It’s very, very frustrating.”
Thrower came to the tournament with five friends, all Maryland fans, and they watched Nebraska lose to Wisconsin on Friday. The Cornhuskers eventually took a brief lead in the second half, but they started the game poorly, which left Thrower searching for the answer to how they beat Maryland. When he considers Maryland’s talent, it’s hard to solve that equation.
After Thursday’s loss, Doug Mangum, one of Thrower’s friends in attendance, said the Maryland section was devastated and disappointed. The trip to Chicago cost at least $1,000. It would have felt better, he said, had Maryland played well and lost.
“But to play horribly and lose,” Mangum said, “it’s kind of unacceptable. It’s three in a row. Three games in a row that we’ve been knocked out [in the first game of the Big Ten tournament].”
Thrower doesn’t plan to go to the NCAA tournament and will likely record Maryland’s game, rather than watch live.
“If they win, I’ll watch it,” he said. “If they lose, I’m not going to break my heart anymore.”
During Thursday’s loss, Mangum heard fans yelling that Coach Mark Turgeon should be fired. The conversation with his friends came back to that topic between second-round games, and their opinions ranged across the spectrum.
“That shouldn’t happen,” Thrower said. “ . . . Turgeon is a super nice guy, a really good recruiter, but I don’t think he fires them up enough.”
Stan Arnold, another one of Thrower’s friends, said of Turgeon, “I really like him, a terrific person. I’m happy that he’s our coach.”
Arnold stayed at the team hotel and saw Turgeon on Friday morning. Arnold, who was wearing Maryland gear, said Turgeon came over to his table at breakfast, shook his hand and apologized for the loss.
Thrower was so upset after the loss that he didn’t return to United Center for the final two matchups of the day. He instead went to a nice Italian restaurant by himself and watched the tournament’s night games from his hotel. But he was back Friday to watch the other teams play.
“I gave thought to maybe calling Southwest and seeing about changing,” Thrower said. “But the guys I'm with, I enjoy them and we have a good time together hanging out.”
The last time the tournament was in Chicago, Mangum drove, which allowed for the flexibility of leaving after Maryland lost. This time he committed to the entire weekend, booking a flight instead, figuring that he could partake in St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
Maria Jackson and Pary Harris, two longtime fans who make scrapbooks for the players, attended Friday’s games but rescheduled their flight home to Saturday. They plan to sell their tickets for the tournament’s semifinal games and the final, hoping to at least receive face value.
Even though their flight isn’t until Saturday night, they plan to watch Maryland lacrosse play Saturday if Jackson is able to hook up her laptop to her hotel room’s television, or Jackson will go to the Art Institute of Chicago. Harris brought some supplies to work on the scrapbooks.
While Wisconsin played Nebraska, they checked their email and social media. They then found a spot to buy cookies and ice cream.
So why are they still here?
“Because I do like basketball,” Jackson said.
“We're curious,” Harris said.
Now that Maryland has lost, these fans’ rooting interest has faded. Mangum got out of his seat to cheer for Nebraska because a Huskers win might have made the Terps’ loss look better. Jackson, on the other hand, wanted Wisconsin to win easily. Maybe that would help her start to get past the previous day’s defeat.
Arnold leans in favor of the underdogs. Mangum calls Michigan State his second favorite Big Ten team because he likes their style, and well, they wear green and he lives in Greenbelt, Md. So they stay for the basketball. But it’s still not the same.
“We really don’t root anymore,” Mangum said. “We just watch.”