Pick a moment, and hold on to it. Julian Reese’s conversion underneath off a pretty little bounce pass from Don Carey, forcing a Purdue timeout. Patrick Emilien’s dunk in transition, when a packed Xfinity Center darn near exploded. Hakim Hart’s three-pointer that forced another Purdue timeout, which only led to Ian Martinez’s up-and-under and-one.
Oh, and that student body, slithering down from the wall of seats beyond the baseline as the clock ticked down. When the buzzer sounded, the court was going to be a hazardous place.
“I was trying to get out of there, man,” Kevin Willard said. “Everybody was trying to rub my head. I was just trying to get back to the locker room, to be honest with you.”
Safety trumps celebration. Remember: This is what Maryland men’s basketball can be. No, scratch that. Remember: This is what Maryland men’s basketball should be.
Willard is in his first year at the helm of the Terrapins, and Thursday night’s 68-54 victory over third-ranked Purdue gives him not only a résumé-enhancing accomplishment to show the NCAA tournament committee but a victory that resonates with all those students who flowed onto the floor, the wrinkly-faced alumni who high-fived all night and the legends from years past who hugged each other and smiled from ear to ear.
“We’ve been waiting for this for so long,” said Lonny Baxter, the center on the Terps’ 2002 national championship team, straining his voice to rise above the din. “There have been so many down years, with ups and downs, things not quite clicking.
“This right here,” and he looked out at the sea of students on the court named after his old coach, Gary Williams. “You can see: They’ve done a great job coaching these guys up, getting the right guys in here. I just can’t wait to see what the future’s going to bring for this Maryland team.”
A program isn’t built in one night, and a victory over one top-five team doesn’t complete a season. But it’s imperative, as Willard solidifies his foundation, that all his constituents have a reason to puff their chests from out beneath their hardened terrapin shells and say, “Yep, that’s what being a Terp is supposed to be like.”
Williams was there Thursday, sneaking out the exits before bedlam ensued. So were Baxter and Tony Massenburg, Greivis Vásquez and Johnny Rhodes. They watched the Terps suffocate the Boilermakers in the second half, turning a 37-29 deficit into a 58-41 lead with contributions from every player who set foot on the floor. If any of these Terps wondered what Xfinity Center is like at its best, wonder no more.
“It was kind of crazy,” Reese said. “ … I saw people falling.”
“I got caught,” said guard Jahmir Young, who led the way with 20 points. “It was hot. Everybody was jumping.”
“Somebody was on the backboard, I think,” Reese said.
Yes, somebody was on the backboard. We’ll get to that.
Willard downplayed his role in providing the moment — and appropriately so. But he brings a little bit of the East Coast swagger that so defined Williams back to College Park. Purdue, Willard said, “is a team that can win a national championship,” and Boilermakers center Zach Edey “is probably the best player in college basketball.”
Yet when Willard and assistant Grant Billmeier finished watching tape Thursday morning, the coach turned to the his aide and said, “There’s no doubt we’re going to win this game.”
“This isn’t a surprise to me,” Willard said.
That attitude filters through the program — already, after only 26 games.
“We can’t ask for a coach that believes in us any more than he does,” Young said.
This is not, of course, a finished product, and the potential here isn’t fully realized. The victory pulled the Terps to 9-6 in the Big Ten, tied for third with Indiana and Iowa, trailing Purdue and Northwestern.
There is work to be done. But try to entice Willard into an it-doesn’t-happen-overnight assessment of his program. He can’t and he won’t, because it’s not what he believes.
“We’re going to sustain this,” he said, quickly and surely. “We’re there. We got the No. 13 recruiting class in the country. …
“That group has laid the foundation now,” he said, pointing to the locker room, where his team celebrated. “Every recruit that came and watched us work, every recruit that came and watched us practice, every high school coach that watched us practice — they all love it. They all love what we’re doing.”
Now the fans do, too. College basketball is supposed to be experienced, to be felt, to provide emotions that make you want to frame the moment. Kevin Willard’s first Maryland team has done that.
“Kevin’s going to do a great job,” Purdue Coach Matt Painter said. “He’s doing a great job.”
About that raucousness that resulted: As Willard somehow found his way through the crowd and to the safety of the locker room, one Maryland student successfully hoisted himself onto one rim. He stood up and pointed to the skies — to No. 1 fingers that brought delirium from his classmates below. With that, another grabbed the net and began to pull himself up.
What an incredible scene pic.twitter.com/WJsAgylF8q— Maryland Men’s Basketball (@TerrapinHoops) February 17, 2023
“Once again, fans,” the public address announcer pleaded, “please do not touch the baskets or the backboards. We do need them for the remainder of the season.”
What next? Tell the kids to stop torching stuff in College Park after wins like this?
This is a step. A joyous, necessary step.
“You always hear people get mad on court storms,” Painter said. He counted the Boilermakers’ road losses the past two years: eight. “We’ve had eight court storms in two years.”
That’s the next step. Willard will know the Terps are fully formed — that they are the peak version of what they can and should be — when he goes on the road in the Big Ten, suffers a loss and the student body at Purdue or Wisconsin or wherever storms their court.
It felt great to be in College Park on Thursday night. What the Terrapins — this year’s version, next year’s and beyond — need to do is reproduce that again and again and again. It’s what Maryland men’s basketball can be. It’s what Maryland men’s basketball should be.