GREENSBORO, N.C. – Maryland had beaten No. 2 Duke earlier in the season, but not like this — not in a rugged, Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game in front of thousands of Blue Devils fans in a game the Terps desperately needed to keep their improbable NCAA tournament hopes alive.
Saving its best for the near-end of a trying season, Maryland got a career-high 30 points from sophomore Dez Wells and claimed an 83-74 quarterfinal victory in Greensboro Coliseum, a building that has practically become Duke's home away from home.
In seizing coach Mark Turgeon's most important Maryland win, the Terps advance to Saturday's semifinals against North Carolina. It's Maryland's first conference semifinal appearance since 2009.
“It helps me with my fans,” Turgeon said with the trace of a smile. He was referring to a following that had expressed disappointment in the young team's mediocre performance after a 13-game winning streak early in the season. “We would have folded a couple weeks ago. We didn't fold today.”
The victory was keyed by Wells, who made critical foul shots at the end.
Wells was 10-for-10 from the foul line. With Wells sitting next to him in the postgame interview room, Turgeon noted how far Wells had come since going 1-for-5 on free throws against Wake Forest a few weeks ago.
Wells, who grew up as a Duke fan in Raleigh, N.C., fought off a leg cramp late in the game that sent him tumbling to the floor.
“God gives the toughest tests to the strongest soldiers,” Wells said. ‘We're starting to peak at the right time.”
Wells had averaged 17.8 points in the five games prior to the Duke game. He said he is shooting more late in the season because he is a leader and the team needs his scoring.
Maryland held Duke to 41.5 percent shooting and achieved Turgeon's season-long goal of seeing his team make more free throws than the opponent attempts. The Terps were 23 of 25 from the line (92 percent).
They could hardly stop smiling as it became evident in the final moments that they would win against a team whose fans have long serenaded them with chants of “Not our rival.”
But Maryland's end-of-game celebration was muted. There were smiles and high-fives, but it was nothing like the joyous scene that unfolded when the Terps upset Duke in College Park last month and fans stormed the court.
“You have to expect to win,” Wells said. “When Duke wins, they don't celebrate that much.”
The building — about an hour's drive from Duke's campus — was full of Blue Devils fans. But as the game wound down, North Carolina's fans — in the arena because the Tar Heels were playing in the next game — joined in applauding the underdog Terps.
Maryland forward Charles Mitchell said the Terps are happy to be in an underdog role because “teams can downplay you.”
Duke lost in the ACC tournament quarterfinals for the first time since 1997. The Blue Devils had advanced to the final in the previous six ACC tournaments in Greensboro. But the last time the Blue Devils played in the building was in an upset loss to Lehigh in last season's NCAA tournament.
Maryland split a pair of regular season games with Duke. But both were played when Duke senior forward Ryan Kelly was sidelined with a foot injury.
Duke entered Friday's game with an 18-0 record when Kelly plays. In ending that streak, Maryland held Kelly to eight points. He missed all six of his 3-point attempts.
The Terps seemed animated early. Midway through the first half, Mitchell clapped his hands three times as he guarded Quinn Cook, who pulled up and missed a 3-pointer with Maryland ahead 17-10. Pe'Shon Howard did the same thing — three claps — playing defense later in the half.
The claps “just get us going, get us to lock in,” Howard said.
Maryland took a 65-52 lead on two free throws by Howard with 5:47 left.
Duke narrowed the deficit to 73-67 on a 3-pointer by Seth Curry with 2:33 left and then got to within five at 79-74. But the Blue Devils had to foul at the end, and the Terps converted their free throws.
Maryland may still need to win the ACC tournament to make the NCAA tournament via the league's automatic berth. But another win would probably get them back into the conversation for an at-large bid.
Before the game, Duke was considered in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
“I didn't think we were hungry tonight,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They're trying to survive, and they played like it.”