A return to Penn State, 25 years later after a night (and game) to forget

Driving up to Penn State on Saturday dredged up some nasty memories of my last trip to Happy Valley for a Maryland men's basketball game. It wasn't much fun for the Terps, either.

It was March 1990, the end of coach Gary Williams' first season back at his alma mater. It was a tumultuous year for the Terps, still reeling from the 1986 death of Len Bias and the three-year reign of mostly error by former Dunbar coach Bob Wade. Wade left Williams plenty of talent, and headaches.


Maryland was a "bubble" team that year, but the bubble burst when the NCAA announced in March that program sanctions, including a postseason ban, would start the following season. Though not official, the penalties ostensibly began when the Terps were snubbed on Selection Sunday.

In the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, Maryland handled Massachusetts, coached by then up-and-comer John Calipari, at Cole Field House.

There was a chance the Terps would host James Madison and former coach Lefty Driesell in a second-round game, so I called Jack Powers, athletic director at Manhattan College and head of the NIT selection committee.

"If you bring Lefty back to College Park, forget about Cole Field House; you could fill Byrd Stadium," I told Powers, only slightly exaggerating.

"We're not going to do it; he's still under contract at Maryland," Powers said. "And Gary is trying to rebuild the program. He doesn't need Lefty coming back to town."

So the Terps were shipped to Penn State, which seemed to be on the verge of making the NCAA tournament until a loss to UMass in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament in Philadelphia.

Getting to Happy Valley was difficult enough for football games in the fall. Getting here for a basketball game was even more adventurous, especially considering there had been a snowstorm the day before. Another one was expected to blow through right after the game.

Penn State's 6,846-seat bandbox called Rec Hall, otherwise known as the Recreation Building, was packed and loud for the game. Williams got things even more riled up when he was called for an early technical foul. The game came down to the last possession, with the Terps trailing by three. Or was it two? Even then, 25 years ago, the scorekeeper wasn't sure.


Sophomore forward Jerrod Mustaf, playing his last college game before becoming a first-round draft choice of the New York Knicks, hit what he and the Terps thought was a game-tying 3-pointer. The scoreboard read 78-78, but the shot had been ruled a 2-pointer.

The Terps then fouled Penn State, which hit a pair of free throws to take a three-point lead.

"We thought we were tied, so we didn't foul" immediately, Williams said after the game. "We thought we could play good defense, make them miss their last shot and take our chances in overtime."

Maryland wound up losing, 80-78.

Needless to say, Williams wasn't exactly in a great mood afterward. It didn't help when a reporter asked him about the first-half technical. "It was a technical foul," Williams said. "What, does Joe [Paterno] have a rule against that here?'

The trip back for the Terps wasn't easy. In those days, Maryland flew on a propeller plane, which was blown around pretty good trying to get out of the area. More than one person on that flight told me they didn't think they would make it back.


Neither did I. A case of food poisoning set in shortly after I filed my story, and after a pretty rough night —  I will spare you the very gory details — I drove back to Maryland on the roads available, which didn't include Insterstate 99.

The Terps returned to Penn State in December 2010, in what turned out to be Williams' last season at Maryland, for an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game. By then, the Nittany Lions had long abandoned Rec Hall for the Bryce Jordan Center. The only scoring issue had more to do with the home team, which was throttled, 62-39.

It remains the fewest number of points scored by a team in the series.

The weather coming into the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday was reminiscent of that night's a quarter-century ago. The snow was falling, the wind was blowing, the wind chill was dipping below zero.

The way I look at it, if I get out of here without food poisoning, I'm way ahead of the game.

And if the Terps can get out of here with something their basketball brethren couldn't all those years ago, so will they.