COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP)—When Maryland’s 2009-2010 basketball schedule came out, forward Landon Milbourne quickly checked to see when the Terrapins were hosting Duke.
The game against the Blue Devils is always the most anticipated matchup on Maryland’s home schedule. This season, however, it’s far more important than most.
Soon after the fans in the sold-out Comcast Center salute departing seniors Milbourne, Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes on Wednesday night, the 22nd-ranked Terps will turn their attention toward avenging an earlier loss to No. 4 Duke and gaining a share of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“In the beginning of year, when I looked at the schedule and saw Duke on Senior Night, I got pretty excited,” Milbourne said Tuesday. “Now, it’s even bigger because we’re fighting for the regular-season title. We’ve been trying to get this chance since I’ve been here, and it’s finally here.”
Picked by the ACC media to finish in fifth place, Maryland (21-7, 11-3) has already clinched second. The Terrapins have won five straight and are 14-1 at home, but they’ve dropped six in a row to Duke—including a 77-56 defeat on Feb. 13.
Maryland hasn’t lost since.
“Sometimes you need a little knock on the head to wake you up,” said Milbourne, the team’s second-leading scorer with 13 points per game. “That’s pretty much what that loss did.”
The Terrapins’ chances of winning depend heavily on Vasquez, who scored a career-high 41 points Saturday in a 104-100 double-overtime win over Virginia Tech. Vasquez will probably feel a mixture of emotions during the ceremony before his final home game, but he knows the night is really only about one thing.
“It means a lot to me because I want to win. Obviously we want to beat Duke,” he said. “It’s about winning. It’s not about anything else.”
It’s all there for the Terrapins: A chance to honor their three hardworking seniors, end their skid against the hated Blue Devils and step into first place in one of the nation’s most prestigious basketball conferences.
“This is a dream,” Vasquez said. “We’re just so excited. We don’t have the pressure that we had in years past, that we have to make the tournament, we’re on the bubble. We just want to have fun. There’s no pressure. We’re playing against a great team, and we’re becoming close to being great.”
Duke (25-4, 12-2) knows what to expect. The Blue Devils have won eight straight and will be jeered mercilessly from the time they walk onto the court for warmups until the final buzzer.
“We’re ready for the test,” Blue Devils guard Nolan Smith said. “There’s a lot at stake in this game and I’m ready. The team’s ready.”
Duke senior Jon Scheyer, who scored 22 in the first meeting, said, “Obviously, it’s a big game. It’s a game you love to play in.”
Maryland coach Gary Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski have been on opposite benches in many of these showdowns, but rarely have the stakes been this high.
Each team still has one game left after this one—the Blue Devils host North Carolina and the Terps travel to Virginia. Then there’s the matter of the tiebreaker for seeding in the ACC tournament, which would be decided by Duke and Maryland’s record against the third-place team, or teams, in the conference.
The Blue Devils and Terrapins are both going to the NCAA tournament, but that doesn’t undermine the importance of winning the regular-season title.
“We didn’t talk about it until we got eight (ACC) wins and we thought were qualified for the NCAA tournament with eight and 20 (overall) and our strength of schedule,” Krzyzewski said. “We just take it in order. What’s the next thing? We have a chance to win a regular season championship, and we should go for that. So that is on our plate, definitely.”
Williams perceives capturing the regular-season title to be a more significant feat than winning the ACC tournament.
“I think it’s very difficult because it’s over a three-month period,” he said. “The time we won it in 2004, that’s a three-day, four-day event. Regular season is tough because you go through injuries, you have a bad game and have to come back from that. So, to be where we are in the regular season, it’s a good feeling right now.”
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Va., contributed to this report.