Terps freshman Jordan Williams blocks the shot attempt by Duke's… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
COLLEGE PARK — - The stakes seemed impossibly high for Maryland's three seniors as they played their final game in front of an adoring sellout crowd at Comcast Center. There was a chance to tie Duke atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and vanquish the memory of a trying series of losses to the Blue Devils that had often left them feeling like ACC afterthoughts.
As much as any of that, Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne wanted to play games worthy of their careers.
No. 22 Maryland - tapping into the adrenalin of Senior Night and using it as fuel - lost a 14-point lead but used the late-game heroics of Vasquez and Jordan Williams to ride to an emotional 79-72 victory.
Terps fans stormed the court at the end, enveloping Vasquez and the other players.
"I have no words to describe how I'm feeling right now," said Vasquez, who had to climb through the fans to get to a post-game interview. "It means the world to me."
With the score tied at 69, Williams hit a put-back to put the Terps ahead. After a defensive stop, Vasquez hit a tough runner to make it 73-69.
The Terps (22-7, 12-3 ACC) then put it away on foul shots.
The win means that Maryland, which has one regular-season game remaining, can claim the top seed in next week's ACC tournament with a victory at Virginia on Saturday and a Duke loss against North Carolina. The Blue Devils hold the advantage on tiebreakers if the teams finished with the same record.
Maryland had entered the game having won five straight overall and unbeaten at Comcast Center in ACC games - further motivation for the Terps. No. 4 Duke (25-5, 12-3 ACC) entered on an eight-game winning streak.
Maryland coach Gary Williams suggested that the game - and the season - helped banish memories of criticism the team endured last year in the media about its recruiting and direction.
"We got dogged pretty good last year when I think they didn't deserve it," Williams said of the players. "I'm really happy for our players who stuck it to some people who had a little bit too much to say last year."
The Terps, riding their seniors, raced to a 33-19 lead. The three seniors - each of whom received framed jerseys from the school and hugs from their families and coach in a pre-game ceremony - combined to score Maryland's first 12 points.
"I think we all kept our composure pretty well," Hayes said.
Vasquez finished with 20 points. Hayes had 13 and Milbourne added five.
But Duke came back on the strength of 3-pointers by Nolan Smith (20 points) and Jon Scheyer - an ACC Player of the Year candidate along with Vasquez. Seven-foot-one center Brian Zoubek (13 rebounds) and the other Blue Devils also began to wear down the Terps on the boards, giving Duke second shots.
Scheyer's first shot of the second half gave Duke its first lead of the game at 41-40.
The Terps reclaimed the lead, making it 54-49 on an Adrian Bowie 3-pointer with 11:11 left. The game swung back and forth from there.
It was one of the most high-voltage games ever at Comcast Center. There were more signs than usual - many saluted Vasquez or mocked Duke - more fans wearing Maryland gold, and more volume. Among those in attendance were Juan Dixon, Maryland's career scoring leader, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, the former Terps wide receiver now with the Oakland Raiders.
Tickets were being peddled for as much as $600. Among those getting an upper-level seat was Burke Miller, a University of Baltimore law student who had offered future legal services in exchange for a ticket. Maryland ended up finding him a seat.
Maryland had lost six straight to the Blue Devils entering Wednesday's game. Its last win came at Cameron Indoor Stadium in February 2007.
On Wednesday, the Blue Devils were fighting not only the Terps but also the supercharged atmosphere inside Comcast Center.
"There was a lot of emotion in this building, and [the Terps] fed off of it early on," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Almost knocked us out of the building. Our kids responded really well."
But it was Maryland's night.
Vasquez had considered leaving after his junior season to try to play in the NBA. He referenced his choice after Wednesday's game.
"I'm so happy I came back to school," he said.