For a precious few moments — as Maryland students rushed the floor and enveloped the players after a rare and sorely needed victory over No. 2 Duke — the Terps, their fans and beleaguered coach could embrace the occasion and forget about the unfulfilled expectations that preceded it.
In the coming weeks, bracketologists will assess what the 83-81 victory might mean for Maryland's chances of making the NCAA tournament.
But for now, the Terps (18-7, 6-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) and their emotional coach, Mark Turgeon, just wanted an opportunity to savor a win over Duke (22-3, 9-3) that represented Turgeon's best moment since taking over the program in 2011.
It's hard to say who was more desperate for such a memorable win — Turgeon, who was near tears afterward, the players or the fans.
Turgeon had to pause to compose himself in the media room as he described how his 13-year-old son Will left the loss to Virginia six days earlier when fans were taunting the coach.
“It's been a hard week. I don't do a lot of things well, but I'd like to think that I can coach a little bit, and I haven't done a very good job,” Turgeon said. “It's been a hard week on my family. Hard on my son last week — he had to leave the gym because the fans were so hard on his dad. This is for them. I've got a loyal family.”
Turgeon's family was in the room watching as he spoke.
Maryland earned its first win over Duke in the last seven meetings when freshman Seth Allen broke an 81-all tie with two free throws with 2.8 seconds left.
A desperation 3-pointer by Duke's Quinn Cook just missed at the buzzer.
“I actually thought Quinn's shot was [going] in,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Maryland had set up a screen for Logan Aronhalt on its final offensive possession. Alex Len was another option. Aronhalt and Len occupied the defense, and Allen bolted down the lane and was fouled by Cook.
“That one was for coach [Turgeon],” said Allen, who scored all of his 16 points in the second half but had eight of Maryland's season-high 26 turnovers. “He wanted it so much.”
Maryland's fans stormed the court, reaching to touch players. Somebody tossed a water bottle high into the air.
“They grabbed me, pulling my hair — anything they could to touch me,” said guard Nick Faust (seven points). Girls were trying to kiss my jersey.”
After the Terps lost to Virginia on Feb. 10, Turgeon asserted himself by declaring that he was the captain of the team. Senior James Padgett and junior Pe'Shon Howard — who was suspended for Saturday's game for an undisclosed rules violation — had previously been captains.
Turgeon also made his team collectively shoot 7,000 free throws during practices leading up to the game. Every player was required to shoot 500. The Terps had been hurt during conference losses by poor free-throw shooting.
Maryland, which unabashedly turns the Duke game into Comcast Center's loudest party of the season, won by dominating the boards and getting to the free-throw line.
The Terps, led by Len's 19 points, converted 25 of 34 from the line (73.5 percent) and outrebounded the Blue Devils, 40-20.
Maryland led by as many as 10 points in the second half. But Duke cut the margin to 80-78 on Seth Curry's 3-pointer with 59 seconds left.
Curry finished with 25 points.
Dez wells was called for a charging foul — his fifth of the game — and Duke took over with 38.7 seconds left.
Curry's jumper rattled in and out with 30 seconds left, and Maryland's Jake Layman was fouled and made one free throw.
Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon was fouled by Layman behind the arc and his three free throws made it 81-81 with 16.7 seconds left
On the other end, Allen drove the lane and was fouled with 2.8 seconds left. The crowd went almost completely silent as he stepped to the line.
Maryland held Mason Plumlee, Duke's senior leader, to four points. Turgeon said he been poking fun at Len, saying Plumlee had gotten the best of him in the past.
“He treats you like a little brother,” Turgeon said he told Len.
The game offered Maryland, which played a light non-conference schedule, the opportunity to add a badly needed win over a quality opponent as it tries to position itself for an NCAA tournament berth. Maryland's only previous victory over a ranked team this season was against North Carolina State, then ranked No. 14.
Students arrived before the doors opened to the rest of the fans. They rehearsed a flash mob-style dance and practiced cheering without using profanity — a longtime goal of athletic administrators.
Maryland's cheer sheet said: “It's a nationally televised game so let's keep it clean!!!”
Students who arrived early were given free gold, red, black or white T-shirts depending on what section they were in. The shirts — which the university hoped would keep students from wearing ones with profane, Duke-related messages — made Comcast Center as colorful as ever.
Notable Maryland alumni at the game included the Ravens' Torrey Smith, Boomer Esiason, Scott Van Pelt, E.J. Henderson and Sean Mosley.
As is tradition after a big Maryland win over Duke, fans flooded to Route 1 to celebrate. Prince George’s County Cpl. Larry Johnson said there had been two disorderly conduct arrests as of 11 p.m., but a campus police spokesman said “for the most part, it was pretty peaceful.”
Maryland entered having lost six straight and 12 of 13 games to the Blue Devils. Maryland's last victory in the series was three years ago at Comcast Center.
The Terps took a 53-43 lead with 14:41 left. But Duke took advantage of Maryland turnovers to reduce the margin.
Maryland had to decide whether to double-team Plumlee in the low post. Plumlee scored 19 points when the Blue Devils beat the Terps in their first meeting last month.
The Terps often used burly freshman Shaquille Cleare to guard Plumlee by himself. Cleared had leaned on Plumlee effectively last month before getting into foul trouble. Len also guarded Plumlee at times.
The Terps didn't use the same starting lineup they had employed the last three games. They went bigger and younger — starting freshmen Allen, Cleare and Layman.
Allen was making his sixth start. He and Faust were asked to run the point with Howard out.
Curry scored 12 quick points as Duke took a 23-20 lead. But the Terps hung in and led 35-34 at halftime.
Maryland is to leave for the Big Ten in 2014, meaning the Duke-Maryland rivalry is winding down.
“If it was such a rivalry they'd still be in the ACC,” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously they don't think it's that important.”
But it felt important on Saturday.