COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins brushed aside a heap of pre-game hype two weeks ago while dominating top-ranked Duke and carving into the record books one of the greatest showings in Cole Field House history.
The potential distractions will be plentiful tonight, as second-ranked Maryland, regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference champions for the first time since 1980 and only the third time in the league's 49-year history, plays the final game at the old building that looks like a hangar from the outside and feels like a steam bath on the inside.
It's Senior Night, meaning starters Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton and walk-on Earl Badu will be honored before tip-off. Included in the closing ceremonies will be salutes to the first Maryland team to play at Cole, former coach Bud Millikan and about 30 former All-ACC and All-America Terps.
Amid the hoopla, the 2001-02 Terps, sporting an 11-game winning streak and a desire to become the first national championship team in school history, will try to top off their best-ever ACC showing by beating Virginia.
Maryland (24-3, 14-1) is assured of the top seed in next weekend's ACC tournament and is a lock to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that begins March 14.
But if you don't think the Terps want and need this game, think again. For starters, Maryland is on the verge of completing its first unbeaten season at home since 1995, the same year they shared a regular-season ACC crown with three other teams.
The Terps have beaten their 14 previous visitors by an average of 21 points and taken down seven ACC opponents at home by an average of 16.3 points. Last week's 90-89 thriller over Wake Forest was the team's only home scare. The last thing the Terps wish to do is interrupt their momentum heading into the postseason.
"We've got a streak on the line. We're undefeated [at home]," said Mouton, the team's senior small forward who is enjoying the best season of his career, which included two years at Tulane before he transferred to Maryland. "We beat Duke at home. We beat Illinois at home. Everybody wants you to win the last game at home."
"It's been a great four years. I've experienced a lot, and I'm looking forward to closing it out," said Dixon, who needs 92 points to pass Len Bias and become the top scorer in school history.
Dixon, who trails only Adrian Branch in career scoring at Cole Field House, needs six points to become only the second Terp to score 1,000 points in the building. He needs 35 to pass Branch.
"It's going to be emotional for me, along with my family and my teammates. I'm going to try not to get too caught up in it, but it's going to be hard not to," Dixon said. "We'd like to keep on playing strong and playing well, right into tournament time."
Coach Gary Williams has admired the way his team, ranked in the top five nearly the entire season after earning its first Final Four trip in school history, has operated so maturely with a target on its back. Maryland finished with a 7-1 ACC road mark, its best ever, has not lost to an unranked team and intends to reach 25 regular-season victories for only the second time in school history.
On paper, this looks like Maryland in a walk. Besides the built-in sense of urgency that the historical night will bring, the Terps have not lost at home to Virginia (17-9, 7-8) since Feb. 4, 1993.
Maryland has won seven of its past nine overall against the Cavaliers, including last year's 102-67 romp in the regular-season finale at home. And the Terps' come-from-behind, 91-87 win in Charlottesville on Jan. 31 sent Virginia reeling.
But the Cavaliers are a desperate, potentially dangerous bunch. They are coming off an incredible victory of their own, and one of their premier athletes and scoring threats, senior forward Adam Hall, is healthy again.
Virginia erased a 15-point second-half deficit at home against No. 3 Duke on Thursday in winning, 87-84. Hall, who missed 10 games with a foot injury, scored 12 of his 21 points during Virginia's game-closing 26-7 run. That stopped a 2-7 slide that knocked the Cavaliers out of the Top 25 and put them on the NCAA tournament bubble.
"They beat Duke, and if they beat us and get to .500 [in the ACC], they'd have a pretty good argument for the NCAA tournament. I think it's a game they really want to win," said Williams, who plans to have his team cut down the nets, but only after a victory.
"We've been pretty consistent this year. Winning the championship is a good feeling, but it shouldn't be a relaxing feeling. It should be a motivational feeling to make us play better. We're not good when we're relaxed."
Williams and his players will get one last taste of the muggy air, cramped concourse and passionate fans that have defined Cole.
"Cole is one of those places where fans feel like they are a part of the game," said Williams, who has spent a combined 18 seasons there as a player and coach. "They don't feel like they're sitting in a studio watching the game on a monitor. ... It's a great place where there's interaction between the fans, the players and the game."
Said Dixon: "I love the fans and the energy. I love the atmosphere. Sometimes the fans make me laugh with some of the things they say. Sometimes I can't believe the stuff that comes out of their mouths."
The Terps plan to give them one last reason to roar tonight.