Despite loss, President Obama's visit caps 'great weekend for Maryland athletics'

Len Elmore couldn't remember whether Richard Nixon ever came to Cole Field House during his presidency, but the former Maryland basketball star recalled an executive order given to longtime coach Lefty Driesell.

"Nixon told Lefty that he couldn't play, 'Hail to the Chief,' " Elmore said Sunday afternoon, sitting courtside at Comcast Center before going on ESPNU's broadcast of the Maryland-Oregon State men's basketball game.

There was more pomp and ceremony than at most early season games, as the presence of President Barack Obama and his family brought out a larger than usual crowd for an early season non-conference game.

As happened the previous three times the Obama family watched a local college basketball game -- at George Washington in 2009, at Howard in 2010 and at Towson in 2011 -- it also brought out the best from the Beavers, coached by Craig Robinson, the president's brother-in-law.

"It means a lot to these guys because they know him, and he knows them," said Robinson, whose team obviously missed senior forward Devon Collier when he sat out last week's loss to Coppin State while serving a suspension. "They played inspired. For him, for themselves, for Oregon State."

Behind the play of Collier, who finished with a career-high 29 points and 11 rebounds, and senior guard Roberto Nelson's 31 points, Oregon State built a 12-point lead early in the second half and watched Maryland get within two points before the Beavers pulled away for a 90-83 victory.

On the same weekend that football coach Randy Edsall recorded his biggest victory since coming to Maryland, third-year coach Mark Turgeon suffered his worst loss to a team picked to finish 10th in the Pac 12 Conference. It left Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson with mixed emotions.

"It was a great weekend for Maryland athletics from a competition standpoint until tonight, and we came up short," Anderson said after the game. "I think what coach [Mark] Turgeon said, the outcome was somewhat disappointing, but to have the president here and the student body come out, I'm sure there were a couple of more people who came for the president."

While the president received a mostly warm reception -- there were a smattering of boos when he and his family walked onto the court a few minutes before the game -- the biggest reaction came when Dez Wells' 30-foot heave banked in at the end of the first half.

The big crowd roared, as the Terps ran off the court thinking they had taken a 41-38 lead, but the cheers were short-lived when it was announced right before the second half began that the basket, correctly, was disallowed.

It was an uphill struggle for Maryland the rest of the way.

The game followed a two-week preparation for Anderson's staff after learning that the Obama family would likely attend the game. A visit by part of the president's Secret Service detail last Tuesday all but confirmed their visit.

In a roundabout way, it was Anderson who helped bring Robinson to Oregon State and eventually brought the Beavers to the Baltimore-Washington area to play. When Anderson left Oregon State to become the athletic director at Army, he recommended to one of his counterparts that the school consider Robinson to be the men's basketball coach.

"At the time I told him that not only is he a great basketball coach, but his brother-in-law had an opportunity to become the president of the United States," Anderson said before the game. "I said it wouldn't be a bad hire and I wanted to bring him here to play Maryland. I know Mark had been talking to Craig, and I had, too, and he and Mark sat down and did the deal."

Obviously disappointed with the outcome, Turgeon acknowledged that "it was cool that he was here and it was great for our university. It brought out a bigger crowd. I think the student section came out. Hopefully he was able to relax a little."

The visit by the Obama family seemed to go off without a glitch inside the arena, where students cheered and waved to Michelle Obama, who responded in kind. Unlike the Towson game, the president stayed for the entire game before being escorted out.

Asked what it means to be unbeaten with his brother-in-law in attendance, Robinson joked that "what we're trying to do is to get him to come to more games in Corvallis."

Nelson said that the crowd at Comcast Center (14,776) was by far the largest the Beavers had played before with the president in close proximity, in this case sitting directly behind the team bench.

"This is a great atmosphere, these fans are terrific," said Nelson, who helped quiet the Maryland fans for good by hitting a tough fallaway jumper from the right wing to give the Beavers an 86-81 lead with 29 seconds left. "It was amazing to see all these fans and rally as a team and get a win."

Wells will probably not take too much from his own performance except the disappointment of an unexpected upset loss as he and the Terps get ready for their trip to the Virgin Islands, where Maryland will play in the Paradise Jam beginning Friday.

Years from now, long after his basketball career is over, what happened Sunday at Comcast Center might make for a good story to tell.

"I play basketball, I don't pay too much attention to who's in the crowd, but it was amazing," Wells said. "I'll be able to tell my grandsons and granddaughters that I had the opportunity to play in front of the president. It was a great experience playing in front of him, and hopefully he has the time to see us play again."

don.markus@baltsun.com