Maryland Basketball

11 February 2007

Longtime readers of my website know that I spent many years at the University of Maryland in College Park. I grew up in suburbs of Baltimore Maryland, and largely for reasons of cost, I went to the University of Maryland for my undergraduate education. I'm a huge sports fan and while attending the school I spent all four years taking part in the marching band and pep band, attending every home football and basketball game and often getting the chance to travel with the teams. (For non-Americans, college sports are very serious business and effectively function as professional sports leagues in their own right.) I was able to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2000, then went to the Orange Bowl in 2001, the Peach Bowl (now Chick-fil-A Bowl) in 2002, and the Gator Bowl (currently the TaxSlayer Bowl) in 2003. I didn't own a camera at the time and this was in the pre-smartphone era, which means that I don't have any pictures to share from those days. I was fortunate to be attending Maryland at a time when its sports teams were on a big run of success, with the basketball team winning the national title in 2002 and the normally mediocre football team winning the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 2001. Even our women's basketball team had a good run, and I was able to travel with them to the NCAA tournament twice in Connecticut and Louisiana. It was an awesome time to be a student and I had the chance to experience a lot of exciting moments with some good friends.

After finishing my undergraduate degree in history, I enrolled again at the University of Maryland as a graduate student to pursue my Ph.D. in history. That was a very lengthy process that took up most of the next eight years before I finally earned my doctorate. In the meantime, I was able to continue to live out the life of a student for many more years, with both the advantages and disadvantages that that entailed. One of the perks was the chance to continue attending the big football and basketball games at the university for no cost. Students get free tickets and the university wants them to attend to create an energetic atmosphere. Nothing looks worse on TV than an empty section that could be packed with rowdy students. The 2006-2007 academic year was my third year as a graduate student, and it was the first time that the men's basketball team looked to be in contention again. After a long run of successful teams, the 2005 and 2006 teams had failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament and had been major disappointments to the fan base. The 2007 team appeared to be on the track back to success once again, and on this particular February afternoon, they were about to play Maryland's most hated rival: Duke University.

American college basketball fans will already know this, but for everyone else reading, Duke's basketball team is widely detested by pretty much everyone because they're always so good. Duke's legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski spent decades building a program that consistently ranks as one of the best in the nation, year after year, seemingly without ever hitting a bad stretch. Duke's team was (and is) particularly easy for everyone to hate: an elite private school that looks down at everyone else with entitled fans that always engage in obnoxious antics at their home games. It was well known that Duke and North Carolina would get preferential calls from the referees in their basketball games, and that's not just the griping of a rival fan. I recall seeing at least one statistical study with a significant p value that showed their basketball teams routinely took more free throws than would be expected. Anyway, Maryland didn't have a natural rival for their basketball program, and the Maryland fan base had adopted Duke as their unofficial rival. This was always a one-sided affair because Duke fans considered North Carolia to be their rival, and would taunt Maryland with "not our rival" chants at their basketball games. But in the late 1990s and throughout the early 2000s, Maryland had more consistent success against Duke than anyone else, culminating in the 2000-2001 season when the teams played FOUR times in one year, including in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Duke won three of those four games, including the last one en route to a national title, but then Maryland got its revenge by winning the ACC regular season title and the national title the next year in 2002. It was a white hot rivalry between some of the best basketball talent in the country, and the games were always incredible regardless of who came out on top.

Things had cooled off a bit in the rivalry by 2007, but the annual Duke basketball game was always the biggst sporting event of the year on campus. Above is a picture of the students lining up to get entry into the basketball arena for the Duke game; my fellow history grad students Eric (in the Baltimore Ravens hat) and Melissa (facing backwards in the red hat) are in the center of the crowd with a bunch of undergrad students. When I first arrived at Maryland as an undergrad student, there was a tradition of camping out to get tickets to the big basketball games, and a student tent city would spring up in the winter as diehards made sure that they would get entry into the top contests. The administration killed that off in 2003 due to safety concerns - it wasn't a good idea to have undergrad students outdoors in the middle of winter and where they could potentially be assaulted - and switched over to an online ticketing system instead. Tickets to the most popular games were raffled off, using a system of "loyalty points" to ensure that those who had attended games throughout the year would also gain entry into the biggest matches. As grad students, we never had to worry about that because very few graduate students ever attended the sporting events. It was always easy for us to attend whatever we wanted. We did want to arrive early for the Duke game though, in order to score the coveted seats near midcourt. As the second picture indicates, we ended up right in the center of the action. Perfect seats.

This game was taking place in the Comcast Center (now the Xfinity Center), a large arena built on the edge of campus that became the home for the Maryland basketball teams at the start of the 2002-2003 season. Prior to that, Maryland had played for decades in Cole Field House, an aging building located in the center of the campus that also served as a multipurpose building. I actually had a class that took place in Cole Field House my first semester, up in a small classroom on the third floor. It was an old building that lacked modern comforts and it would get incredibly hot when games took place, to the point where the basketball coaches on each side would be sweating through their suits and looking really grimy by the time that the game ended. I loved that building and I've never really warmed to its replacement. The names alone tell the story: Cole Field House was named after William Cole, a Maryland judge who served in Congress and was one of the university's regents. The Comcast/Xfinity Center was named after the company that gave the university the most money for the naming rights. The new arena has always had a bit of a souless corporate feel to it, and I've always wished that the basketball team would have continued playing one game a year back in Cole Field House. But of course that would have meant less money from ticket sales, and if there's one thing that I learned from a dozen years at the University of Maryland, it's that making money from corporate sponsorships is always priority #1. That's not even a possibility any more since Cole Field House was torn down and replaced with an indoor practice facility for the football team in 2015, a decision that still angers me to this day. Was it really necessary to get rid of a beloved piece of the university's history to have a practice facility for our crummy football team?!

Anyway, on this particular day the Comcast Center was buzzing with energy, and it felt like one of the old games back in Cole Field House. Duke's basketball team was coming into this match on a two game losing streak, and the fans could smell weakness and were out for blood. The arena was packed half an hour before tipoff, and there were cheers throughout the warmup shootaround. Duke's players were roundly booed every time that they took the court, especially Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus, the top players on this Duke squad. The verbal taunting wasn't nearly as bad as it had been in previous years though, when Maryland fans had made the national news for screaming obscenities at Duke star J.J. Redick. He was not present at this game after leaving for the NBA following the 2006 season. That wasn't a proud moment for the university.

The second picture above has the Maryland ceremonial captains for the game, featuring former Maryland basketball coach Lefty Drisell. He coached the team during the 1970s and 1980s and put the university on the map as far as basketball was concerned. The third and fourth pictures showcase one of the Maryland student traditions during basketball games, shaking newspapers during the introduction of the other team's lineup to show indifference to their players. The university supported this by distributing newspapers with "Go Terps!" on the back side, and when thousands of students were all doing this at the same time, it made for a striking visual effect. The entire back wall of the arena is devoted to student seating, and the idea is that they make as much noise as possible to distract the opposing team's players when shooting free throws. It's kind of a cheap trick but pretty much every school does this stuff, and in a close game it can make a real difference. Maryland fans also have a long tradition of singing along with Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part II", then telling the other team "You suck!" and "We're going to beat the hell out of you!", which the university has been trying to stamp out for years for obvious reasons. My alma mater is not always the classiest place.

I captured the moment just before tipoff above, with the players from both teams anticipating the start of the action. Ekene Ibekwe (#25) is about to jump for Maryland versus Josh McRoberts (#2) for Duke. When the game was underway, Duke jumped out to an early lead in the opening minutes, followed by Maryland roaring back with an astounding 29-4 run that had the home crowd in a frenzy. That's the moment captured in the second picture above: Josh McRoberts of Duke is signaling for a timeout as Mike Jones (#23) and Greivis Vasquez (#21) of Maryland defiantly stare down the Duke bench. This was a real breakout game for Greivis Vasquez, who was only a freshman but had been good enough to play his way into the starting lineup. He would play at Maryland for four seasons and become the school's all-time leading scorer, then enjoy a long and productive career in the NBA afterwards at the professional level. We were just seeing the start of his career here, and the talent was already unmistakeable.

Duke did their best to rally in the second half. Down by as many as 20 points, they managed to cut the lead to 58-52 with less than ten minutes remaining in the game. However, in the closing minutes Ekene Ibekwe and Mike Jones both made a pair of baskets to stretch the lead back to 14 points at the final TV timeout, and that effectively sealed the game. The first picture above was taken at that last TV timeout, with the Maryland players walking back to their bench and everyone in the building knowing that the game was finished. It was a celebratory atmosphere for players and fans alike, a big win at home with no need to sweat out the final minutes. I took another picture as Greivis Vasquez was dribbling out the clock with 30 seconds remaining, driving past Greg Paulus as everyone in the arena anticipated the final whistle.

After the game ended, the players and coaches lined up to shake hands with one another. Maryland coach Gary Williams (in the center with the gray hair and red tie) shares a few words above with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose back was to the camera. This was much more orderly than the normal end to a big Maryland win, when the students would typically rush out onto the court. I think the main reason that didn't happen here was the fact that the margin of victory was large enough that there was no drama to the ending. I was in the building for a win several years later in 2010 when Cliff Tucker made a halfcourt shot to win the game... then had it fail to count because Gary Williams had called a timeout right before the shot. Whoops. Then Maryland ran a halfcourt play and Tucker made a contested 3 point shot for the win anyway. If anything like that had happened, you'd better believe that the students would have rushed out onto the court, security personnel or not.

The final score was 72-60 and the Maryland basketball team now had its biggest win of the season. Here's the Maryland press release following the game; the box score is linked from that page for the curious. They were only getting warmed up though, as they would follow this game by winning their next six games in a row, including a road win over this same Duke team down in Durham and then a win over #5 ranked North Carolina in College Park. This removed any drama about Maryland making the NCAA tournament, and even a flameout in the first round of the ACC tournament that year didn't stop Maryland from getting a #4 seed. They played Davidson in the first round of the NCAA tournament, which was a noteworthy game because future NBA superstar Stephen Curry was on that Davidson squad and scored 30 points. Then Maryland lost a heartbreaker in the #4 vs #5 game against Butler, when an inspired comeback effort wound up falling just short by a score of 62-59. It was the end of their season, but a very rewarding one after the previous unsuccessful campaigns. The fan base felt especially happy for the seniors on the Maryland team, who had come in with high expectations and struggled through several losing years before finally making good in their last season.

I've probably been to about 200 Maryland basketball games over the years. While this wasn't the closest or most dramatic game, it was a lot of fun to attend with my grad school friends and remains a fond memory of my time at the university. I hope this helps provide a window into something that was a major part of my life for years on end. Thanks for reading.