The clock showed less than five mintues to play. Wake Forest was clinging to a three-point lead over Maryland in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday.

Guard Benny McKaig slid to his left and flipped the ball inside to 6-foot-7 forward John Hendler.

Before Hendler could move, Buck Williams was on him. Hendler faked and shot. Williams went straight up and slapped the ball back into Hendler's hands. Again, Hendler went up. Again, Williams was quicker. This time the rejected shot went to Terrapin Reggie Jackson.

Jackson quickly led a fast break the other way, resulting in a three-point play by Greg Manning and tying the game. The Terps coasted to victory from there. It was, in effect, a five-point play.

"I was just trying to play defense, hard, the way I'm supposed to," Williams said, his voice a monotone, as if he were describing a push-up drill in practice. "I just timed my move right."

Since he arrived at College Park 16 months ago. Williams rarely has timed anything wrong. As a freshman he was the leading rebounder in the ACC, winning rookie-of-the-year honors easily.

When Coach Lefty Driesell appeared to be the leader in last season's Sam Bowie sweepstakes, Terrapin fans were titillated by the thought of a Bowie-Williams-Albert King front line.

Bowie chose Kentucky and, all of a sudden, Driesell had a great power forward, a great shooting forward and no center. He toyed briefly with the idea of putting 6-foot-10 sophomore Taylor Baldwin in the middle but decided Baldwin wasn't ready for 35 minutes a night of ACC basketball.

That left Williams.

"The way I look at it I have a disadvantage because of my height (6-8)," the Terp center said yesterday, "but the other guys have a disadvantage because I'm faster than they are. I have to use my quickness and speed to make up for my height."

Williams would be further along in adjusting to his new position had he not broken the ring finger on his right hand trying to block a shot in practice on Nov. 29. As it is, he has played only four games and was in foul trouble in two of them.

"I ain't worried about Buck," Driesell declared after Williams had fouled out last Thursday against Georgia Tech. "He ain't on trial or anything. He's my center, I guarantee you he's going to outplay just about everyone he goes up against."

That prediction held up in Maryland's first tough ACC game, against Wake Forest. Going against Jim Johnstone, Wake's rapidly improving 6-foot-11 sophomore, Williams was dominant. He had 15 points and 16 rebounds, made those blocks against Hendler and held Johnstone to six points and three rebounds.

Still ahead lie the challenges of such players as Clemson's John Campbell, Duke's Mike Gminski and Virginia's Ralph Sampson. How well Williams handles himself against those men may go a long way toward determining how well this 10-1 Maryland team does this season.

Williams is aware of that. He also is aware that Driesell, never known for his subtlety, declared him "the best center in the country" before he officially had played the position for one minute.

"That doesn't bother me," Williams said, smiling under the mustache that makes him look older than his 19 years. "I'm not a pressure guy, I've never let it get next to me.

"I'm not playing for money or anything, I'm playing for fun. If I was playing in the pros it might be different. But I'm not so I just try and use that kind of statement to get psyched up to try and get 20 points and 20 rebounds a game."

Ever since he was a ninth-grader, Williams has been considered capable of having those kinds of statistics.

"The first time I saw Buck I knew he was a diamond in the rough," his high school coach, Reggie Henderson, said. "He was big, he was quick and he had those big hands that make him such a great rebounder."

By the time he was a junior playing for Henderson at Rocky Mount (N.C.) Senior High School, Williams' talent had attracted the top college coaches from around the country. There was one problem.

Grades.

"My sophomore and junior years I wasn't really into my school work," Williams said. "You know how it is, I was more into partying than booking." w

It was Henderson and Williams' parents who pressed him to raise his grades so he could go to college.

"Whenever I got a bad report Coach Henderson was on the phone to my folks and then they would get all over me," said Williams, the youngest and tallest of five children. "My senior year they finally got through to me and I got going just in time."

Williams narrowed collges choices to three, Maryland, Kentucky and North Carolina. His mother wanted him to become a Tar Heel.

"Coach Driesell told me I could make it academically at Maryland if I went to class," Williams said. "He told me that if I wanted to I would graduate. That was important to me. I knew that guy like Phil Ford, who was a good student, went to North Carolina and kind of had to struggle sometimes I wasn't sure it was the place for me."

The soft-spoken player has never regretted the decision.

"Coach Henderson always made the point to me that getting into college was just the first step," Williams said. "From the first day I've been here I've worked very hard to keep my grades up (he has a B-average) and I know I'm going to graduate in four years.

"That why I know that whether I make it or not in the pros I've got something I can do. I'm not sure yet which direction I want to go in but I'm not going to be dependent on basketball for a career."

Right now, though, basketball is very important to Williams. Last year he averaged 10 points and 10.8 rebounds shooting 58 percent.

"I guess I'll be all right playing center," he said, his voice less than enthusiastic. "I know that playing there I've got to concentrate harder on boxing out. I've got to play real smart, always be in position and stay out of foul trouble. I was concerned about my foul problems last week. I'm hoping it doesn't happen again."

Although he comes across as a serious person most of the time, Williams has a sense of humor. When Driesell walked by yesterday on his way to watch some films, Williams called out, "Hey, isn't that Dean Smith? Looks just like him."

When an astounded Driesell replied, "WHAT?" Williams said, "Well, you do have a lot in common."

"Yeah," Driesell snorted, "we both coach college basketball teams."

While Driesell is bullish on the concept of Williams as a center, former coach Henderson is not. "I guess the way I look at it is if you've got one of the best power forwards in the country, why ask him to change positions? he said.

Williams said he "certainly wouldn't mind it if we got a big center in here next year so I could go back to forward. But I understand why I have to play center and I'm confident I can do the job. I've always been an inside player anyway, so it isn't that big an adjustment."

Williams is a power player, one who relies on speed and strength, not on finesse. He worked last summer on improving his jump shot, but that work has not paid off yet because of his finger, which he says, is still sore.

Thus, not blessed with the outstanding jump shot of King or Ernie Graham, he will continue to work inside, to use his great leaping ability and huge hands to get the rebounds Maryland needs against the ACC heavyweights. h

"He may not be as tall as other centers but his speed gives them a different dimension," Wake Coach Carl Tacy said. You have to prepare differently for him than for other centers. In the long run, that may be to their advantage."

"We all know what kind of talent Buck has," said King. "And we know what a hard worker he is. Everyone on this team is confident he'll do the job."

Williams is confident, but certainly not cocky. He knows it is hard work that has gotten him this far and he doesn't intend to change his style now. And, while he admits to thinking about basketball almost constantly -- "Sometimes in class I find my mind wandering to a move I should have made the day before" -- he isn't obsessed by it.

"Basketball and my school work take up most of my time," he said. "I know one player in a thousand makes it to the pros. I'd like to be one of those because I've always dreamed of being able to buy my mother a house.

"But if I don't make it in the pros, that's okay, too. I can handle it. I can handle playing center now, I can handle not making it in the pros later if that happens.

"One way or the other, Buck Williams will survive."