DURHAM, N.C. — For one night — the last night — it was just as good as it ever was.
Maryland will head to the Big Ten next year and will not likely face Duke again in the regular season for a very long time, unless the ACC-Big Ten scheduling gods have a sense of humor, of course. But in a 69-67 Duke win to conclude the ACC rivalry, it went out with a bang.
Duke and Maryland, in its heyday, was special. It hasn’t been nearly as special for the last decade or so. Maryland, following a 2002 national title, never was quite able to maintain the success it had from 1998-02. In the 11 seasons since the title, the Terps have made the NCAA Tournament five times and have advanced past the Round of 32 just once (2003, Sweet 16 appearance). They are currently stuck in a three-year drought, and counting, with this year’s only hope being an auto-bid.
Duke, of course, is Duke. As we all know. With the exception of a hiccup or two, nothing has changed. A hiccup for Duke, though, is considered a 3-seed or worse in the NCAA Tournament and an early exit.
The Terps returned most of their talent from last year’s group, which showed a lot of promise, but it hasn’t materialized this year. Duke? Maybe even a tick better in terms of the talent on this roster, even if it isn’t as experienced as last year’s Elite Eight-bound group. The Blue Devils are No. 8 in the country and rising, and is now 20-5 overall (9-3 ACC). Maryland is 14-12 and 6-7 in the ACC. But for awhile on Saturday night, in Maryland’s final trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium as an ACC member, the gap was indistinguishable.
As former Maryland star Juan Dixon sat watching, the Terps looked more like the classic Maryland teams from the years when this rivalry was special than the last six teams that have come to Cameron, shell-shocked (no pun intended) and thrashed by superior Duke teams.
"We played tonight for Maryland. We didn’t play for ourselves," Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. "We played for all former coaches, all former players, all former students because we played for Maryland. We knew we weren’t getting them at our place. This was our one chance. We know what it means to Maryland fans. I can’t be more proud of my guys. I hope every Maryland fan feels the same way. I know we’re upset we lost, but our guys gave it all they had."
That’s precisely what made this game special in the past: two great teams battling it out, giving it all they had, fighting for every single inch.
It was Duke overcoming a 10-point deficit with less than a minute to go in College Park in 2001. It was former Maryland point guard Greivis Vasquez coming into Cameron and taunting the Crazies. It was Steve Francis and Joe Smith, Jay Williams and Shane Battier, Steve Blake and Lonny Baxter, J.J. Redick and Chris Duhon and, of course, Gary Williams versus Mike Krzyzewski.
On Saturday, the Crazies even broke out a "Sweat, Gary, sweat" chant for old time’s sake.
In spite of multiple "not our rival" chants from the Crazies — a reference to the fact that Maryland takes the game more seriously than the Blue Devils do, and that Duke’s primary rival is still North Carolina — it didn’t feel like Maryland wasn’t a rival.
"Just one of those scrums where that ball’s all over and you see Duke and Maryland players diving everywhere for balls, there were a few of those," Krzyzewski said. "Those were unbelievable. The will to win was showing so brilliantly during those exchanges."
Dixon would have no doubt been proud of Maryland’s Dez Wells, who was brilliant late in the game, hitting a 3-pointer with 2:45 to go to give the Terps a 67-64 lead. Duke couldn’t buy a basket, and Maryland shot nearly 47 percent in the second half, outscoring Duke 34-30 in that period. Wells had 15 of his 17 points in the second half, most coming late, when Maryland was able to surge ahead.
Maryland got a look at a win with two seconds left, down 68-67 — a better look than Duke would’ve liked.
Maryland’s Charles Mitchell, the burly 260-pound sophomore who finished with 12 points, got the ball down low. And Duke sophomore Rodney Hood found himself switched onto Mitchell, facing a 45-pound deficit.
"He’s a big guy, but I just made him shoot over the top," Hood said afterwards.
Mitchell did just that, and with two seconds left, the shot rolled tantalizingly around the rim, hanging perilously on the edge, looking like it was going to fall into the basket before falling off the side instead. Mitchell dropped to a crouch in disbelief, as did his teammates on the floor with him. He put his head in his hands, then stared straight ahead as if wondering how something like that could happen.
He wasn’t the only one who thought that shot was in.
"I don’t know what happened," a still-stunned Turgeon said. "It was rolling in, and then all of a sudden it’s rolling out."
"I thought it was in, but the basketball gods looked out for us," Hood said. "(The ball) was up there for like 10 seconds, in my opinion. I was just waiting in anticipation. I think the crowd helped us a lot with all the noise and kind of shoved it the other way."
Krzyzewski called the crowd "vintage Cameron" after the game, and it was. It felt that way, anyway. They clearly understood the magnitude of Maryland’s final trip to Duke. As did Krzyzewski, who is old school about some things — the ACC being one of them. He spent time before and after the game, he said, with Dixon, who he called one of his five favorite players. After those hard-fought games during Dixon’s time in Maryland (1998-02), he told him, win or lose, "I respect who you are."
Now, there will be no more of those moments.
"Over the years, those players and the coaches and the teams that have shared these unforgettable moments. I don’t know what price, what it’s worth. It won’t be replicated," Krzyzewski said. "I’ve said all along, they’re part of the ACC."
In the modern world of expansion in college sports, this is a reality. Rivalries will die; new ones will be born. Traditions will be eschewed for money. (And football, of course.) Duke will move on, and so will Maryland. But Saturday night gave the nation a glimpse into what was once one of the must-see games in college basketball during a golden era for ACC hoops.
"It’s going to be weird, but that’s the way college basketball is now. A lot of teams are moving all over the place," Duke senior Tyler Thornton said. "It’s going to be sad, but somebody will come in there and fill that place over time."