With a display of heart and grit befitting a team that envisions itself winning a national championship, No. 3 Maryland turned defeat into its most exhilarating victory of the season, erasing a seven-point deficit over the final three minutes and knocking off the No. 8 Cavaliers, 91-87, before a sellout crowd at University Hall.
The Terps (17-3, 7-1) won their ninth game in 10 tries, matched their best eight-game start in the Atlantic Coast Conference ever under coach Gary Williams, kept pace with first-place Duke and concluded their first run through the conference schedule by essentially turning the ACC into a two-team race between Maryland and the Blue Devils.
"We've got a lot of heart. We've been through it. It's not like we haven't played big games on tough courts," said Williams, whose team closed the game with a 13-2 run. "That was a great game. We knew how to act down the stretch."
Depth is what got the Terps into their first Final Four last year, and depth carried the night in Charlottesville - beginning with all-purpose guard Drew Nicholas, who did not score for more than 37 minutes, then dropped two of the biggest three-pointers of his life on the Cavaliers (14-4, 4-4) to spark Maryland's amazing comeback.
"Those last three minutes, it still hasn't sunk in yet," said Nicholas, who wore the brightest, six-point scoring line of the night.
After going scoreless in the first half, Maryland's bench of Nicholas, forward Tahj Holden and center Ryan Randle combined for 21 points in the second half.
With the Terps trailing 85-78, Nicholas threw some cold water on the delirious home crowd by hitting a 25-footer from the right wing to cut Virginia's lead to 85-81 with 2:26 left. After Maryland forward Byron Mouton and Virginia guard Roger Mason Jr. each made two free throws, Nicholas did it again from the top of the key, some 23 feet away.
That pulled Maryland to 87-86 with 1:19 left, and it changed the momentum dramatically. The Cavaliers, who seemingly were in control minutes earlier behind Mason's game-high 29 points, would never score again.
Maryland closed the deal by running off the game's last five points and making a series of great defensive stands. After Mason missed a go-ahead runner, Maryland center Lonny Baxter (14 points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots) blocked Virginia center Travis Watson's follow-up. Watson then fumbled the ball out of bounds.
The Terps promptly converted, as senior guard Juan Dixon - held to only four second-half points by Mason at that point - hit a 10-foot, baseline runner to give the Terps an 88-87 lead with 32 seconds left. Virginia forward Chris Williams then missed a 15-footer. Holden grabbed the rebound, got fouled, and made two free throws to make it 90-87 with 13.7 seconds to go.
Nicholas then blocked Mason's game-tying, three-point attempt from the left corner. The Cavaliers retained possession, but freshman forward Elton Brown's three-point attempt missed. Mouton, who finished with a team-high and season-high 21 points and carried the Terps in the first half, then made one of two free throws to ice the contest.
That was the only free throw missed by Maryland, which made 25 of 26 from the line, the third-best single-game percentage in school history.
"I don't even know what to say about this team," said Dixon, who finished with 16 points and four assists, but watched others carry the action for a change.
"It was a great win. It does a lot for us, starting off 7-1 in the ACC," Nicholas said. "That's not too bad. [The Cavaliers] thought they had the victory, and the crowd was really into it. We remained mature. We were not going to let that game go."
Virginia, despite being out-worked on the boards, where Maryland held a commanding 45-34 edge, did everything but finish. The Cavaliers overcame a tremendous first half by Mouton - who had 16 points and seven rebounds, including six at the offensive end - by trading runs and sustaining a frenetic pace en route to a 46-44 halftime lead.
At that point, Virginia's bench had outscored Maryland's, 15-0.
The Cavaliers, behind Mason and Watson (19 points, game-high 12 rebounds), opened a 51-44 lead in the opening two minutes of the second half, then withstood five ties before losing the lead at 70-69 on Randle's shot with 7:48 to go. Virginia then went on a 14-4 run to take an 83-74 lead with 3:22 left.