It’s over four hours before tipoff on a rainy day in College Park, Maryland. A 6:30 p.m. start time on a Thursday means that most would be battling workday traffic to arrive on time, but for some, a late arrival isn’t an option. Not for a game of this magnitude.
Eric Warbitsky and a group of friends were more than willing to endure the elements with front-row seats to Maryland’s game against No. 3 Purdue as an attainable reward. They came prepared, setting up a tent just outside the student entrance to XFINITY Center long before the game was scheduled to begin, something he said was planned weeks in advance.
“All of us being seniors, we’ve been here about four years. There’s always one special game,” said Warbitsky, who got in line seven hours before the arena’s gates opened. “This year, I feel like this year we’ve had a couple where the atmosphere is just insane. … We’re all big basketball fans, some of our friends are over there cheering us in the car, it’s definitely a great atmosphere out here. As seniors we want that one big last hurrah. And this is what we’re looking for today in this game.”
Gathered around the entrance are groups of students with similar ambitions. Some take refuge under the eave that grants them cover from the rain, while others mill about, killing time before their race through the concourse and down to the seats commences, where they will wait again for 90 minutes before the teams take the court.
It’s not until three o’clock that arena employees begin to arrange barricades, metal detectors and tables to control the crowd as it grows larger. Hidden under refreshments and other gear in Warbitsky’s tent lies a bluetooth speaker playing a muffled rendition of Gary Glitter’s “Rock n’ Roll (Part 2),” a tune banned for years at Maryland games in an attempt to better the reputation of a home-court advantage as effective as it was hostile and crude.
Fast-forward nearly five hours, and that same song is blaring over the speakers inside the defeaning XFINITY Center, with 18,000 Maryland fans joining in and unmistakably directing their improvised lyrics of “Hey, you suck!” toward the Purdue huddle. Terps legend Greivis Vásquez — responsible for many of the biggest moments in the 20-year history of the venue — could be seen grinning from ear to ear and singing along courtside like a proud father.
By calling timeout after Julian Reese nearly blew the roof off the building with a tough finish over superstar center Zach Edey to give Maryland the lead, Matt Painter was making as desperate an attempt to slow the Terps’ momentum as the school did attempting to stop the playing of Glitter’s unofficial Maryland basketball anthem, which has since been reintroduced to the delight of the Terps faithful.
Reese’s basket was just the 10th point of what became a 29-4 second-half run from Maryland, spurred on by raucous supporters that made their presence felt all night long.
“I could barely hear the people next to me, especially during that second-half run,” junior Braden Burns said. “XFINITY was an electric factory. That was the loudest I’ve heard the place in my time here.”
“The in-game atmosphere was the best I have ever seen,” Arianna Bocchino, also a junior, said in agreement. “I’ve been to a lot of Maryland games and this was by far the loudest and most hype game I have ever been to. XFINITY was absolutely rocking the entire game and you could tell that the fans were not going to let Purdue win this game. It was unmatched. You just had to be there.”
The students put on a show almost as entertaining as the product on the court. Rowdy, shirtless fans littered the first few rows, some donning body paint. Every time Braden Smith touched the ball after missing everything with a shot with 18 minutes left, deafening taunts of “airball” rained down, unconcerned with the strong performance he was putting together. Rally towels spun through the air as Maryland’s second-half showing turned the atmosphere from one of tension to that of a hectic celebration.
The video board hanging above the court noted the Big Ten’s “commitment to sportsmanship” on three occasions, and not once did it make even the slightest difference.
It felt like old times in College Park again.
The buzz around campus was tangible in the days leading up to Thursday’s game. Despite Purdue losing its No. 1 ranking after a loss to Northwestern, fans were fired up about the prospect of getting a chance to witness what would be the signature win of the program’s first season under head coach Kevin Willard.
“Personally, I couldn’t wait all week for this game. My friends and I had planned out what time we were eating beforehand, what time we were walking to the XFINITY Center, and where we would sit,” freshman Gregory Puttlitz said. “As soon as we got in … it was obvious almost everyone else had planned this out too. There was for sure an electric feeling waiting for tipoff.”
Michael Rosen, a sophomore that arrived not long after Warbitsky and brought a lawn chair for a more comfortable waiting experience, wanted to make sure that he was front and center when that time came.
“Playing the No. 3 team in the country, you know, it’s the biggest game of the season. It’s gonna be a great time. Trying to get as close to the action as possible,” he said. “I’ve been like front row right behind the announcers, probably like two games in a row. It makes the whole game different. It’s the best experience of my entire time at Maryland so far.”
Rosen also made it clear what his and his fellow students’ celebratory plans were should the Terps knock off the Boilermakers.
“Oh, we’re getting on that court. We’re getting on that court big time. It’ll be fun,” Rosen said.
Once the Terps went on their run, it became clear that possibility was going to become a reality. As the clock wound down into the final moments of the game, students began leaving their seats, ready to pour onto the hardwood when the final buzzer sounded.
“Just under two minutes left, we decided that we needed to get down the stairs to storm the court. Once there was less than a minute left on the clock not a single student was in their original seat. Everyone was in the aisles ready to storm,” Burns said.
Terps head coach Kevin Willard did his best to usher Purdue off the floor before the tsunami of students arrived, but there was no reeling in to be done of his players, who could be seen celebrating as the fans piled onto the court, the first time it happened in College Park since 2015.
“I was in the front row and storming the court was so hype, it really shows why people come to Maryland … XFINITY is truly the hardest place to play in college basketball,” junior Louis Messercola said.
Whatever damage was presumed to be done to Maryland’s fanbase from recent years of frustration is being undone fast — faster than most could’ve expected before the season began. It’s hard to imagine Willard could be more popular in College Park than he is right now.
“I knew he would bring a new energy to our program, but the fact that he did it this quickly with a roster that he put together in a little over a month proves that he is a huge reason for this team’s success,” Messercola added. “Willard is here to stay and Maryland basketball’s future is bright.”
“I was trying to get out of there, man. Everyone was trying to rub my head. I was just trying to get back to the locker room to be honest with you,” Willard joked after the game.
There are some that cringe at the concept of students at a school like Maryland rushing the floor, saying that a program of its stature should expect to win and celebrate accordingly. There are also some that have concerns about the safety of the process (for what it’s worth, Painter praised the effectiveness of the XFINITY Center security in ensuring everyone’s safety after the game). But there’s no doubt that getting to celebrate the unofficial re-arrival of Maryland men’s basketball was a night to remember for those that were lucky enough to experience it.
“I knew I was storming that court when I saw we had Purdue on our schedule at home. I knew we were pulling the upset and I would be on that court,” Bocchino said. “It’s all kind of a blur when we actually did storm, but I just ran as fast I could onto that court and the energy was unmatched. It was like all of my Maryland basketball dreams came true.”