COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- On the third floor of Maryland’s Comcast Center, a line of about 500 people wrapped around the concourse Sunday morning, fans clutching their game programs and other memorabilia, patiently waiting for autographs from former coach Gary Williams and former standout players Juan Dixon, Walt Williams and Tom McMillen.
Across from the autograph table, another crowd gathered to take pictures of a display of the 2004 ACC championship trophy.
On a day in which Maryland coach Mark Turgeon spoke of building his program for the future with a 75-69 overtime win over No. 5 Virginia -- an opponent the Terrapins have faced more than any other school -- it was impossible not to recognize the program’s past. Every seat in the arena was given a commemorative newspaper flyer with the number 61 on it, the number of years Maryland has been in the ACC. A raucous crowd was on hand to witness the Terps’ final home game in the conference before officially joining the Big Ten this summer.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said 13-year-old Tommy Jennings, decked out in Maryland colors from head to toe.
Indeed, there were some rare moments.
It was an emotionally charged atmosphere that helped propel the Terps to a stunning upset, halting the Cavaliers’ 13-game winning streak and six straight wins against Maryland. Twice the students lined up to storm the court, only to be sent back to their seats as Virginia sent the game into overtime.
“Today wasn't just an ordinary game,” said Turgeon. “You can tell by the cameras in here. You can tell by the fans. It was a lot of things -- last ACC game, last regular-season game, Senior Day, playing a top-five team in the country that had already wrapped our league up. Just a tremendous team. We always play for Maryland, but today we played for former players, former coaches, all our fans. I made the comment today that there's probably a lot of Maryland fans who haven't watched all year that might have tuned in to watch because it's the last ACC game we ever play in.”
They made it one to remember.
Maryland shot 48 percent from the field and scored 32 points in the paint against the nation's top-ranked defense, which came into the game holding opponents to 54.8 points per game. The Terps have lost heartbreakers all season -- dropping three of their last five games by a total of eight points, including a 77-73 double-overtime loss at Clemson.
This time, they had some added motivation -- not to mention a definitive home-court advantage.
Gary Williams, whose trademark fist pump and sideline tirades became as well-known as the school colors, watched the game from a courtside seat across from the Virginia bench. Former player Steve Francis, wearing a green Len Bias Celtics jersey, Maryland Pride socks, a Maryland Pride hat, sunglasses and a gold chain, came late and was escorted to the sideline where he gave Williams a hug and sat next to him for a while.
Tahj Holden, a key player on Maryland’s 2002 national title team, was also there, along with Ernie Graham and Bob Bodell.
Many fans described the day as “bittersweet.”
“It’s very weird,” said Eric Pilka, a 1975 graduate. “It’s kind of sad seeing the traditional rivalries with Duke, Virginia and North Carolina going by the wayside. It’s hard to get behind it. Not to disparage any of the Big Ten schools, but rivalries form over a long period of time and it’s going to be a while before we start looking towards the Maryland-Indiana game.”
Jen Claus, a 2007 graduate whose parents are season-ticket holders in both basketball and football, agreed.
“To me, it’s a very big deal because I grew up watching Maryland since I was 5 years old,” she said. “Leaving the ACC is a very sad experience for me. People think it will be a good move eventually, but everyone is very sad because the ACC is what you grew up with. It’s what you know. It’s home.”
It was home.
One student held up a “B1G” sign during the game, and another had one that read “ACC: Already Cashing Checks.”
The students aren’t naïve; they know the reason behind the move.
“Financially, I think it’s going to be great for the school,” said senior Rick Henry, who plays the baritone in the pep band. “I know we’re in a lot of money trouble right now, having cut seven varsity sports last year. Honestly, I feel like a lot of the negativity is a little overblown, but it is sad because we’re a founding member and there are some emotional ties, but honestly I feel like any rivalry we have in the ACC is a one-way thing. Duke isn’t as interested in us as Carolina. I really think a clean start in the Big Ten is going to be good for us, and that TV is going to be great for all athletics and hopefully the students too.”
Time will tell how the program will fare in its new conference, but on Sunday, Maryland gave its fans something to celebrate now. With the win, the Terps have some positive momentum heading into its final ACC tournament, which begins Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C.
“We’re trying to build something,” Turgeon said. “We have one senior. This will help us as we move forward.”
Saturday’s win over Virginia certainly helped the program put its past behind it.