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Maryland brings New York state of mind to Madison Square Garden against Illinois

Harvey Sanders has been involved with Maryland men’s basketball for the better part of 50 years, going from being a benchwarmer on coach Lefty Driesell's first Terps team to being one of its most influential boosters for coach Mark Turgeon.

Sanders left his native New York for Maryland to go to college, but returned quickly after graduation. Despite the fact that he gave up his scholarship going into his junior year as Driesell built Maryland into a national power, Sanders has been a die-hard Terp.

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Getting a scholarship after being one of the freshman team’s top players as a walk-on “was one of my proudest moments,” Sanders recalled earlier this week, and surrendering it to Driesell after not seeing much playing time was one of his toughest.

“No bad feelings; it was a great experience,” Sanders said Wednesday.

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On Saturday, Sanders will be at Madison Square Garden with what he expects to be thousands of other Maryland fans, when the No. 13 Terps play Illinois in the first half of a Big Ten basketball-hockey doubleheader.

Maryland's loss to No. 6 Michigan State ended a seven-game winning streak for the No. 13 Terps, but they remain on the heels of the Spartans and No. 5 Michigan nearly halfway through the Big Ten season.

“I would hope that we get seven or eight thousand Maryland fans there,” Sanders said.

That’s a lot more than last year’s Big Ten tournament at the Garden. It drew a considerably smaller number supporting the Terps for what turned out to be a cameo appearance, a disappointing 59-54 loss to Wisconsin in the second round.

It was also the last game of what was a frustrating 19-13 season.

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Given the team’s performance over the past month, it should be a lot different Saturday.

Before Monday night’s 69-55 loss at No. 6 Michigan State, the Terps had won seven straight games to go from being unranked and virtually unnoticed to making the Top 25 poll for the first time in two seasons, moving up six spots this week.

Matt Monroe, Maryland’s associate athletic director for annual giving and ticket operations, said there’s been an uptick in sales for Saturday’s game and the team’s remaining home games, especially for weekend dates.

“Probably from after the Seton Hall game [Maryland’s loss prior to Michigan State], certainly with the winning streak and the way the team’s played since that point has generated quite a bit of buzz,” Monroe said Thursday.

Maryland center Bruno Fernando was named to the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year midseason watch list.

As a result, Turgeon said after practice Friday that he expects a warm reception for himself and the team.

"We've always had great fans in New York, passionate fans in New York,” Turgeon said before his team took the train from Maryland. “I’ve spent a lot of time in New York trying to help build the fan base even more. So, with the season we're having, I expect a pretty good home crowd tomorrow. I'm sure Illinois will have a lot of fans there, too, but I’d like to think that we'll have a pretty good showing."

Turgeon, who played at the Garden multiple times while he was a Kansas guard from 1983 to 1987, has one particular memory of his trips to New York. It isn’t from the court but the elevator the players and coaches take up from the street to the floor level.

“When you get on this elevator and you think about all the people that have been on that elevator — entertainers, athletes, whatever it is — it's really cool,” Turgeon said. “It's just an amazing building in an amazing city. I know I get a little bit more juiced up every time we play there and I'm sure our players will, too."

The trip to New York — at the behest of the Big Ten and in place of a home game at Xfinity Center — marks the eighth time in Turgeon’s eight-year tenure that Maryland will play in a metropolitan area that is a major breeding ground for future Terps fans.

Sanders is part of about a 20-person booster group based in New York that calls itself “Another National Championship” and is hoping to help raise the money for a new men's basketball practice arena.

No. 13 Maryland saw its seven-game winning streak end in a 69-55 defeat to No. 6 Michigan State on Monday night in East Lansing.

A couple of ANC members have already joined the Sweet Sixteen, a Maryland-based booster group whose members commit at least $50,000 annually for five years. There are also more traditional fan clubs like the New York Terps, who are part of the school’s alumni association.

“The university doesn’t like us talking about our various groups that we have, like the ANC, the FOMB (friends of Maryland basketball, formerly FOG, friends of Gary), the Sweet Sixteen, but I can tell you New York is important from a fan-base standpoint and from a financial standpoint,” said Sanders, a 1972 Maryland graduate and the retired chairman and CEO of Nautica apparel.

“There are a lot of Terps in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area who are capable of giving money to the university and they’re excited right now, everybody’s excited about this season. Last year was a tough year. … I think we did OK to go 19-13, but it was a disappointment for everybody, including Coach.”

Beyond the big-money boosters such as Sanders, Saturday’s game will attract many longtime Terps fans whose affection for the program goes back to their four years in College Park, even if the team didn’t win much during their college days.

Jeff Jackel, who graduated in 1989 after serving one season as the team manager for women’s basketball coach Chris Weller and then working in the school’s sports information office, left Maryland right as future Hall of Famer Gary Williams was arriving.

Talking to his friends who follow the Terps, Jackel got a sense this week that they’re a lot more excited about this year’s team than they were about last season’s.

Former Maryland congressman and basketball star Tom McMillen is urging Gov. Larry Hogan and legislative leaders “to take all necessary steps” to avoid a college athletics betting scandal if the state legalizes betting on football, basketball and other sports.

“I don’t think they were upset about the Michigan State loss,” Jackel said. “They feel like we’re not going to win every game, and they feel like they’re going to improve. And they love Bruno.”

Like many Maryland fans, Jackel has been impressed with the new players Turgeon has brought into the program.

“I’m very excited about what the young players are bringing, a little more toughness,” Jackel said Thursday.

Junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. seems to have wiped away the memory of last year’s season-ending defeat to the Badgers, and the botched inbounds play that took away a chance of Maryland tying the game in the final seconds.

"How many kids do you know that get to say they played at Madison Square Garden?” Cowan said Friday. “So that's kind of what I try to tell my teammates, that you've just got to try to take advantage of the opportunity."

The freshmen, in particular, seem to be most excited about the trip to New York.

Calling the Garden “a great building, a great arena, one of the greatest arenas in the world,” freshman forward Ricky Lindo Jr. is aware of what one NBA star did there earlier this week.

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“James Harden just had [61 points] the other night, so hoping I can drop 60, too," he said with a smile.

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Freshman point guard Eric Ayala always chooses to play as a New York Knick when he competes against his teammates in the video game NBA 2K19. He even traded with one of his virtual teammates to get the No. 5 he wears for the Terps.

“So I was playing a game last night, I was like, ‘I'm about to play there tomorrow,’ ” Ayala said. “It's an experience that I look forward to. I just talked to my mom. You know, she's going up there early so she can get a nice parking spot. You know, it's a blessing for me to be there, for our team to be there, to play in such a historic arena."

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