After tense game, fans look forward to Terps' title shot

Minor disturbances reported as crowds celebrate in College Park

March 31, 2002|By Alec MacGillis, Stephen Kiehl and Lisa Goldberg | Alec MacGillis, Stephen Kiehl and Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The party started a little too early. But after a few heart-stopping minutes, University of Maryland fans around the state were able to breathe again - and to celebrate their team's first-ever trip to college basketball's championship game.

"I got a little worried at the end. They started to give it away a little bit. But they pulled through," said Bobby DeGeorge, 24, of Hyattsville, part of a cheering crowd in the middle of U.S. 1 in College Park that was later dispersed by police in riot gear shooting smoke canisters. "It's awesome. I'm loving it. Just one more to go."

Nervous fans who had begun toasting their victory midway through the second half watched as the Terps' double-digit lead disintegrated in the game's final minutes. But when the Terps held on to beat the University of Kansas, 97-88, the party resumed as fans looked ahead to tomorrow night's final against underdog Indiana University.

The celebration in College Park appeared fairly calm - unlike the chaos after Maryland's semifinal loss to Duke a year ago, when students set bonfires around town that caused more than $250,000 in damage.

But after the game, a few hundred fans spilled out of bars near campus, massing at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Knox Road. Police shut down traffic on U.S. 1 and looked on as revelers pulled up a few street signs.

Shortly after midnight, a half-dozen mounted police backed by 50 police in riot gear began advancing on the crowd.

"The horses will step on you. Disperse!" one officer ordered.

A few students threw bottles, in one instance hitting a horse and in other appearing to hit an officer's foot. The police then shot off smoke canisters, which succeeded in moving students off the road. But at 12:30, students and police were still arrayed in a standoff on either side of U.S. 1.

"People were showing their enthusiasm for the win, and then the cops showed up and started shooting," said Scott Simon, a senior finance major from Philadelphia.

It was a more orderly scene an hour earlier at nearby Cole Field House, where fans were invited to watch the Terps on a giant screen television. Only about 600 fans - Cole holds 14,000 - showed up, their cheers echoing in the Terps' home arena as Maryland pulled ahead in the second half.

"I have never ever seen them play this good," said Gary Grant, 33, a graduate student from Takoma Park. "They're not going to lose the championship."

Over the past year, Maryland fans have gotten used to cheering their teams - both basketball and football - in big games. But it hasn't made them jaded: This year's Final Four, they said, is like nothing before it.

Last year, Maryland was happy just to get to the Final Four.

This year, with arch rival Duke University out of the tournament, and with the Terps' stars in their senior year, fans are expecting that 2002 will produce a Maryland title.

"If we ever get a chance of winning a championship, this is the year," said Brian Garber, 23, who graduated from Maryland in 2000 and was watching the game at the Cornerstone Grill.

Garber is in graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia, but he returned to campus just to watch the game, arriving six hours before tip-off to get a good seat.

It's a good thing he came early. The bar, like its neighbors, was packed, with long lines outside well into the first half.

Its pregame chants of "KU [stinks] and we're going to beat the hell out of you" fell silent as the Jayhawks jumped to a 13-2 lead.

But the crowd was back in full throat at halftime after Maryland had surged to a 7-point lead. College Park Mayor Stephen Brayman boogied next to the bar with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

By midway through the second half, the bar crowds were in full victory mode - that is, until they looked up and saw their lead rapidly dwindling.

"Run the clock, run the clock, don't shoot, don't shoot," one anguished fan shouted at the screen, as others nearby clasped their hands in prayer.

The scene at Cole was quieter than most fans expected, but most of them didn't mind - they had come to Cole to pay their final respects to the Terps' longtime home. "I wanted to be here. Being at Cole is like being at the game," said Grant, a Bronx native who watched every home game this year from the same fourth row seats.

For some, it was a rare opportunity to get inside the Terps' home court. Norma Griffiths, a dental hygienist from Jarrettsville, is 3,499th on the season-ticket waiting list, but she was at Cole last night, waving a Maryland state flag, wearing Terps beads and worrying what she'd do when the game got close. At home, she always walks away from the television and cleans house when she can't take the suspense anymore.

By 1 a.m., police were getting help from a downpour, as some students started to head home. Others alternated anti-police slogans with Terp cheers. Capt. John Brandt of the campus police said he expected a much wilder scene tomorrow night, when all students will be back on campus.

"Now on Monday, you'll see us set up just like we would for a Duke game, with all kinds of equipment," he said.

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