University of Maryland basketball capped 47 seasons at Cole Field House last night with a 112-92 victory over Virginia that elicited cheers and tears. These Terps are playing so well, perhaps they'll have a national championship to celebrate when they move into the $108 million Comcast Center next season.
The pre-game Senior Night ceremonies added to the emotion, as All-America candidates Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter were recognized, with Byron Mouton and Earl Badu. More than 100 signs decorated the stands, and one read, "Last Chance to Moo at Cole," a reference to the cheer that lifts Mouton. Coach Gary Williams' second-ranked Terps admirably handled the hype that could have become a distraction.
"That's exactly what we wanted to do, close out Cole with a win," said Dixon, the senior from Calvert Hall who continued to close in on the school scoring record. "The ceremony at the end was a great experience for me. There are a lot of great names up in the rafters. A lot of great guys came through this program."
The evening concluded with a court of dreams, as former Terps greats decked out in commemorative jerseys participated in a ball-passing ceremony symbolizing the move to the Comcast Center. It began with season-ticket holders from the inaugural campaign and ended with the president of the student body, and in between the ball was passed through generations of all-stars.
Included were Bob Kessler, the leading scorer in the inaugural game, a Dec. 2, 1955, win over Virginia; and the McMillen brothers, Jay and Tom. On the ball went, as Jim O'Brien and Len Elmore and Larry Gibson and Adrian Branch and Keith Booth and too many others to mention held it aloft and basked in the glow of a crowd that was in no rush to depart.
Last of the players was Steve Blake, the junior point guard who will lead Maryland into the Comcast Center. Classmate Tahj Holden boosted Blake to a dunk, the last Terp basket at Cole.
"I was told after the game I was going to be involved," Blake said of his ad-lib basket. "As soon as Tahj gave me the ball, a few guys told him to pick me up."
After the blowout victory was clinched, the pep band played "Amen," an homage to former coach Lefty Driesell, whose Georgia State team scared Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year and lost the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference on Saturday. The song that celebrated Terps victories during his tenure was revived, but the coach who breathed life into a moribund program and arena in 1969 wasn't in the house.
"He should be here," said Tom McMillen, one of the first players to bring Maryland to national prominence, and a Rhodes Scholar and U.S. congressman to boot.
Players from the 1955-56 team that opened Cole and the group two seasons later that went to the NCAA tournament were feted during halftime with their coach, Bud Millikan. Al Bunge, a 1960 graduate who was Maryland's only All-ACC player between Gene Shue and Tom McMillen, made a rare trip back from his home in Oklahoma.
Mary Humelsine, Class of 1939, was among the fans who traveled full circle with the old-time Terps. Humelsine's father, Cecil Speake, managed construction on campus during the post-World War II building boom that included the Student Activities Building, which was named for Board of Regents Chairman William P. Cole in its second year.
"I drove up from my home in Williamsburg, Va., today. I wouldn't miss it for anything," said Humelsine, 83. "I was here for the first game, and I'll be here when they open the new arena, too."
Wayne McGinnis watched the first game, too - from the Maryland bench. McGinnis, who grew up in White Hall and was one of only two in-state players on the team, said the atmosphere was considerably different in those days. There was one notable exception. It came the next year, when McGinnis was a junior.
"There were 15,500 the night we almost beat top-ranked North Carolina the year they won the national championship," said McGinnis, who would go on to coach Hereford High School. "There were people sitting in the aisles."
McGinnis, a season-ticket holder for the past 10 years, and more than 50 former players attended last night's game. The 1980 team, the last to win an outright conference regular-season title, was well represented, as Ernest Graham, Albert King and Buck Williams were honored.
"I'm sad because it's still a great place," King said. "I wish Cole could go on forever."
Those who watched Williams bring Maryland to its first men's Final Four in school history last season believe the hoopla surrounding last night's game had as much to do with the team's current status as it did with the memories evoked by the venerable arena.
"When you look back at what Cole is - it's bigger than the University of Maryland," said Mark Turner, a 1978 graduate and now a businessman in Columbus, Ohio. "But I think this night has a lot to do with the fact that the program is on the top level. It wasn't that way when Gary got here. We've matured, like a fine wine."
After the game, Brian Lawry of Huntingtown, Calvert County, stood in a bone-chilling wind with a sign offering $10 for the commemorative ticket stubs - a favor for a friend and former Terps player to display in the bar in his house. He said he bought 15 within a half-hour of the game's ending as a sea of red-bedecked fans streamed out of Cole.
"These stubs have a lot of memories," said Lawry, who did not manage to get a ticket to see the game.
Scalpers were asking close to $2,000 for prime seats. Bob Schaftel, a Baltimore insurance executive who graduated in 1962, said he'll save the ticket to last night's game, just as he did the ticket from the first Orioles game at Camden Yards and Cal Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game.
"When my wife and I die, the kids will probably throw them out," Schaftel joked.
It all came two weeks after a monumental win over then-No. 1 Duke.
"Given all that was going on tonight, this was the tops," said Dixon, who was asked to rank the win in his career achievements. "Closing out Cole, all the ceremonies - it was great for us and the fans."
Sun staff writer Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.