COLLEGE PARK — More than six decades after playing its first Atlantic Coast Conference game at Ritchie Coliseum, Maryland will play its last ACC regular season game Sunday at Comcast Center against No. 5 Virginia.
The Cavaliers were there for the opening of Cole Field House in 1955 and helped close it in 2002. But the roles of the respective teams will be nearly reversed from that game a dozen years ago.
Maryland (16-14, 8-9 ACC) will be looking for a signature win while Virginia (25-5, 16-1) comes in as hot as the then No. 2 Terps were in 2002, when they won their first national championship. The Cavaliers have won 13 straight.
The Terps won both of those of those historic games against the Cavaliers, but have yet to beat Virginia in five previous games under coach Mark Turgeon. Coming off a strong second half in a 64-47 win over last-place Virginia Tech on Tuesday, Maryland hopes it can reverse a recent string of close losses to ranked teams.
The game is expected to attract only the second sellout crowd of the season, two weeks after the Terps overcame a slow and sloppy 30 minutes to nearly beat then-No. 4 Syracuse. Former Maryland coaches Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams will headline the ex-Terps expected to be in attendance on Sunday.
"Obviously with the ticket sales being swallowed up — hopefully by all Maryland fans — it shows it means a lot to our fans," Turgeon said after practice at Comcast Center on Saturday. "Practicing at this arena today, with all this stuff in here, makes our players know that it's an important game."
Turgeon was referring to the huge "61" papered onto the seats behind one of the baskets — commemorating 61 years in the ACC — as well as giveaway T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Crush the Cavs" on the front. That the noon game is on network televison (CBS) is also not lost on Turgeon and his players.
"We put a lot into the Duke game and we came up short," Turgeon said, alluding to a 69-67 loss to the then-No. 8 Blue Devils last month at Cameron Indoor Stadium. "I hope we play with the same emotion tomorrow that we did at [Virginia], and we play well."
Some of that emotion will be provided by sophomore forward Charles Mitchell, who was sent to the team's locker room by Turgeon late in the first half of Tuesday's win after having words on the bench with assistant coach Scott Spinelli. Turgeon announced Thursday that Mitchell would not be suspended.
Asked what led to his decision to not disclipline Mitchell further, Turgeon said: "I did discipline him. I kicked him off the bench. I did a lot of homework on it. He paid his dues ... he does a lot of things right, he gets a little too emotional in games. He was embarrassed by it. Hopefully, it'll help him grow up a little bit."
While the Terps will play in their last ACC tournament beginning Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., the last home game takes on special meaning.
Junior guard Dez Wells, who grew up in Raleigh, N.C., said that playing in the ACC was one of the reasons he transferred to Maryland from Xavier last season.
"It means a lot to us, the legacy of Maryland and the ACC together, it means everything to the fan base and to the culture of Maryland basketball, to coach Turgeon and the team," Wells said. "We want to go out with a bang."
John Auslander, the only senior on this year's team, has been coming to Maryland games since he was small. His parents both graduated from the school in 1986 — Driesell's final season, and the year Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose after being drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics.
"It's a special thing that your Senior Day is on the last ACC game," Auslander said Saturday. "So many rivalries, so many big games we've played against Virginia and other ACC teams."
Gary Williams said the rivalry with the Cavaliers has roots as deep as those against Duke and North Carolina.
"Everybody talks about Duke and North Carolina, but there were some great Virginia games," Williams said Friday. "I think it's ironic that you close Cole Field House and you close the ACC history [at Comcast Center] with Virginia."
Asked about the difference between closing Cole Field House in 2002 and closing out the ACC at Comcast Center, Williams joked, "I'm not coaching."
Turning serious, Williams said that the 2001-02 team had a goal to finish unbeaten at Cole Field House. By the time the game was played — and then won by the Terps, 112-92 — Maryland was 21-3 (13-1 in the ACC) and fighting for a high seed in the NCAA tournament. Virginia (16-12, 6-9) had just beaten No. 3 Duke.
"Every game that you won, you were improving your chances to be the No. 1 seed, which we were," Williams said. "Also, we had most of the former living players back and a number of coaches, — my coaches, Bud Millikan and Frank Fellows — Lefty was back, Tom Young, who was an assistant and a very good player, was back."
This season's team has already lost four times at home and has very little chance of even getting into the NCAA tournament, short of winning the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum. But Wells believes it's important to close out the ACC regular season with a victory over the Cavaliers.
"I think it sets us up really well [for the ACC tournament]," Wells said. "We have the right components to beat them. They're a great team, but I think they're ready to be beat and I think we can do it."