COLLEGE PARK - There was no way the Maryland Terrapins were going to leave their fans with a tarnished memory. Not on this night. Not in this house.
The second-ranked Terps completed the greatest regular season in school history and kissed their cherished home court goodbye in style last night. They took control of Virginia early, then ran the Cavaliers out of College Park, 112-92, before the final sellout crowd at Cole Field House.
Maryland capped its year the only way this edition of the Terps could have. Coach Gary Williams said when the team gathered for Midnight Madness that one goal was to go 15-0 in the final season at Cole. Maryland (25-3, 15-1) then proceeded to plow its way toward its first outright regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title since 1980.
The run culminated in last night's party that launched the Terps into next weekend's ACC tournament as the top seed. Maryland opens on Friday at noon against the winner of Thursday night's Clemson-Florida State play-in game.
"It was just a great feeling," said center Lonny Baxter, one of the four seniors honored on Senior Night. "I don't believe it. We won the ACC title and went undefeated at Cole Field House. It was huge."
Virginia came to Maryland's floor following a huge upset victory over Duke that gave the slumping Cavaliers renewed momentum as they angled for an NCAA tournament berth. But Virginia hit the same wall that has slammed so many other opponents here this season. The Cavaliers also went down for the ninth straight time at Cole.
The Terps, who won their 12th consecutive game while completing their first unbeaten season at home since 1995 - and only the fourth in the 47-year history of Cole - won as they have all year. They jabbed effectively early, then delivered a knockout blow later.
With an 18-6 run to open the second half, the Terps turned a 43-36 halftime lead into a 61-42 advantage with 15:15 left. Maryland would stretch the lead to 24 points, as the outcome was never in doubt. The Terps laid 69 second-half points on Virginia, while matching their season high in scoring. Even senior walk-on Earl Badu got into the act with his second career Terps basket and an assist during the game's final two minutes.
"We have a good team. It's not one guy. It's a group of people who have decided to be the best they can be this year," Williams said. "I think this team has done as good a job as any I've had at taking care of each game as it comes. I'm proud of them."
"With their talent, their coaching and their emotion, I think they would have beat most teams in the country tonight," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. "You can't outscore a great team like Maryland. We had a great offensive game but our defense was very bad, especially in the second half."
Everybody joined the Maryland party, as six players scored in double figures, punctuating a night when the Terps softened up Virginia's zone defense early with outside shooting and offensive rebounding, then ate up Virginia's man-to-man with its vaunted front line in the second half.
Three Terps hit the 20-point mark for Maryland. Baxter and guard Juan Dixon, the seniors who have been the spine of this team since October, made more statements.
Dixon overcame an 0-for-5 shooting start by scoring 17 of his team-high 23 points in the second half. Baxter finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, including 13 points after halftime.
The rest of the second half, which featured 72.7 percent shooting by Maryland, belonged to high-flying, sophomore forward Chris Wilcox. He manhandled Virginia forwards Chris Williams and J.C. Mathis, producing 21 points and 11 rebounds. Wilcox had 16 points and seven rebounds in the second half.
Junior point guard Steve Blake overcame early foul trouble and a subpar first half by finishing with a double double. Blake had 15 points and 10 assists, including nine assists and one turnover in the second half. Senior forward Byron Mouton added 11 points, five assists and four rebounds. The Terps also made 25 of 30 free throws.
Dixon said the thought of playing his final game on campus put his nerves on edge. Then, he had trouble finding openings early in Virginia's double-teaming, matchup zone. But once the Terps started to exploit Virginia's man-to-man in the second half, and once Maryland got its transition game cooking, Dixon was on. He shot 7-for-11 in the second half.
"I know there was no pressure on us, but we still wanted to get out of here with a win," said Dixon, who became only the second player ever to record 1,000 points at Cole Field House. "The fact that I was holding my niece [Kiarra during the pre-game honors] helped [his nerves]. It was a great moment, and there was a lot of emotion."
Said Blake: "We're always focused on the game, and we know we can make a run at any time."
Williams led Virginia (17-10, 7-9) with a career-high 28 points. Center Travis Watson finished with 20 points.
Nearly all of the 14,500 who attended stayed to watch a series of post-game ceremonies, which ended with Maryland cutting down the nets to celebrate its conference title.
The Cavaliers started with some fire. They were determined to contain Dixon, and they swarmed enough with their 2-3 matchup zone to hold him scoreless and limit him to five shots through the game's first 13 minutes.
But it was only a matter of time before Maryland would begin to hammer the Cavaliers. First, they used the inside power of Baxter and Wilcox to lead an 11-2 run to erase a 17-12 deficit and take a 23-19 lead with 9:12 left.
Then, with Dixon leading the charge, Maryland went on a 16-2 run and took a 39-24 lead with 3:55 left in the half. Virginia, behind Williams, would close to within 43-36 at the break, but the Terps opened the second half with an 18-6 run, and the Cole faithful had what they wanted.
"You might as well leave in the right way," Williams said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun