COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Wednesday’s game with North Carolina at Comcast Center didn’t go as planned for the Maryland Terrapins.
At stake was the need to enhance an NCAA tournament resume that had the Terps a good distance from inclusion into the 68-team field, according to most of the nation’s credible bracketologists.
Also of importance, however, was losing 79-68 to the Tar Heels in what might have been their final visit to College Park for the foreseeable future. Maryland leaves for the Big Ten following next season, and gone forever will be the emotionally charged visits from Duke and UNC.
Those contests have long been more than basketball games in the District of Columbia area; they have been events. Many of Maryland’s former greats show up, so do plenty of Washington’s dignitaries, politicians, actors and musicians. The back-slapping that goes on where the big-wigs sit has always been a story away from the game when the blue bloods visit.
And while the Duke games may have reached frenzied heights never before registered over the last decade, it’s the Tar Heels’ future absence that will shake the foundation of Maryland’s reality more. UNC’s visits have been must-experience drama in the nation’s capital for more than 40 years. By the time Lefty Driesell’s teams rose to the level of Dean Smith’s UNC clubs in the early 1970s, it was on ten-fold.
The 1972 game, which the Terps won 79-77 before a Cole Field House record crowd of 15,287, was a signature game for Maryland. UNC later went on to the Final Four that season, but that victory helped propel Driesell’s program to the brilliant 1973 and 1974 campaigns that concluded with top-10 finishes.
Yet, while battles with North Carolina State in those two seasons carried more national meaning, it was the Tar Heels Driesell always viewed as the measuring stick.
In the mid-1960s, Smith landed Charles Scott when the recruiting universe thought he was headed to Davidson, where Driesell coached at the time. Scott later sent Davidson home from the NCAA tournament with a game-winning jumper in the East Region finals in 1968.
Smith was Driesell’s nemesis from that point on, which obviously carried over to Maryland. Driesell stomped and cursed on the sidelines that “Dean gets all the calls.” Lefty flailed his arms at officials and grimaced toward UNC’s bench as Smith replaced one 7-foot McDonald’s All-American with another.
Lefty got Dean a few times, including 91-80 in 1974, 70-69 in a 1980 classic, and in 1983, Maryland knocked off Michel Jordan, Sam Perkins and the Heels 106-94 at steamy, wild Cole.
Driesell made it about Smith, and Maryland’s passionate fans embraced the coach’s angst, though the rivalry was rather lopsided.
“I hated them so much,” said Scott Wrenn, a Maryland graduate and fan for 45 years. “I hated that blue color, I hated Smith, I hated Jordan, J.R. Reid. I even hated Dante Calabria. They were too perfect. They got under my skin. They still do.”
Most basketball fans along Tobacco Road are familiar with Driesell’s promise that if he ever won the ACC tournament he’d drive around the state of North Carolina with the trophy on the hood of his Cadillac.
He won in 1984, but didn’t follow through with his promise. But the story still stands because it was classic Lefty and remains a good tale.
Always the politician of sorts, Smith said in an interview in 1989 he never saw Driesell as a rival.
“It’s not a one-on-one battle,” said Smith, who retired in 1997 as the all-time leader in wins with 879, a record that has since been passed. “It never has been. It’s been unfair to Lefty because we won a lot of close games.”
Wednesday’s victory brought UNC’s mark to 120-57 overall in the series, including a 47-37 edge in College Park. But that’s still a decent winning percentage at home for the Terps, given UNC’s amazing greatness over the years, which includes winning at least 20 games in 40 of the last 43 seasons, with two of those campaigns ending with 19 victories.
The event being a hot ticket didn’t escape the Gary Williams era.
Williams, who took over at his alma mater in 1989, used to frequent local radio shows in the DC area the week of playing UNC, whining about the Tar Heels’ depth, talent and about just how good and efficient they were. It only intensified the animosity toward North Carolina. Williams and current UNC coach Roy Williams are friends, but Gary still viewed playing the Heels the same way until he retired two years ago.
The current Carolina coach has often spoken about the difficulty of playing in College Park. His respect for his colleague was off the charts.
“Gary was phenomenal what Gary did here for many, many years…,” UNC’s Williams said Wednesday night. “Gary starting out, people always said some things, but Gary hung around and out-toughed everybody.”
Affectionately known as “Garyland” to some Terps fans, Williams and the Terps beat No. 1 UNC with Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter in 1998 and had several stretches of success in the 2000s, including beating Carolina in 2009 when Greivis Vasquez had one of the greatest nights for a Terrapin scoring 35 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out 10 assists in the overtime triumph. That UNC team, paced by Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, rolled to the national championship.
If this was UNC’s last visit to College Park it was much like so many meetings of the past. The surging Tar Heels looked like so many Carolina teams that have picked up victories against a frustrated Terps bunch, with fans leaving a bit early layering even more angst toward the baby blues.
Unfortunately, an opportunity for a court-storming revenge might never happen again.