"It felt good," Ernest Graham said. A shooter knows when a shot feels good. It's smooth it's soft, it's no effort at all. The eye connects the hand to the rim. Flip the wrist, the ball is in the hole. From 20 feet, with victory there for the taking, Ernest Graham went up for a jumper. It felt good.
Swish. Nothing but net. The prettiest sight a shooter ever sees. The 20-footer put up from the top of the free throw circle, put up by Ernest Graham tilting sideways just a little -- the 20-footer gave the University of Maryland a 63-61 victory over Virginia tonight.
But the best part, if you want to believe that this Maryland team is different from the one a year ago that lost seven of its last 13 games, is what Ernest Graham said later when reporters asked him about that last shot. What he said is proof certain that this Maryland team is indeed different. This one is a basketball team, not a circus act.
What Graham said about that 20-footer is that he used to shoot that shot all the time.
He used to.
No more. Once upon a time, the 20-footer fired from the hip was Ernest Graham's turn in center ring. It was his act. Give him a basketball at the Lincoln Memorial, he would aim a jumper at Cole Field House. Memory retains a picture of Graham, en route to his 44 points, waving to his buddies to give him the ball against North Carolina State last year. Gimme, gimme, I feel good about this 78-footer.
"It felt good," Graham said. "I got the ball and took a dribble. I shot it off the dribble. I used to shoot that way all the time."
All that Ernest Graham, a junior, needs to be a wonderful basetball player is an ounce of discipline, an ounce of willpower to resist the mighty temptation that visits every gifted shooter every 30 seconds or so.Shooters without shots are Picasso without a brush, incomplete and restless.
But, hey, Picasso didn't paint every wall he saw. Hemingway didn't write greeting cards. For Ernest Graham to say "I used to shoot that way" is a sign that Lefty Driesell has at last put that ounce of resistance in Ernest Graham's system.
And with Graham under control, Maryland is a fine basketball team. Now 15-3 on the season and 7-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- no other ACC team has fewer than three defeats -- Maryland has proven it is for real. Virginia had won eight straight home games this season by an average of 17 points. Five straight times, the Maryland circus had flopped here, five straight losses to the once-sad Cavaliers.
The way Driesell hopped and skipped off the court in celebration, looking for all the world like an aging leapfrogger, you'd have thought the coach had just won a game in which his "little 6-8 center had outplayed a 7-4 phenom . . . you'd have thought this was a coach whose game tactics won a big victory . . . you'd have thought this Maryland team has ideas of glory.
You'd be right.
Buck Williams, the 6-8 midget, played 7-4 freshman Ralph Sampson onto the bench. Not that Sampson was beaten into embarrassment. The big kid was worn out.
Every move Sampson made, at either end of the court, Driesell had ordered Williams to counter with his body. Sampson paid a cost in bruises tonight and, coincidentally or not, he twice went to the bench for rest, once gulping down a handful of pills and burying his face in a towel.
Whatever Graham's shot meant, whateer Williams' seven-for-11 shooting meant, whatever Albert King's 18 points and majestic cool meant -- none of it would have meant anything if Lefty Driesell had not made the coaching move that gave Maryland control of the game midway through the second half.
Sampson left the game with a twisted ankle with 12:12 to play. Maryland then led, 48-45, having come from three points behind in the previous six minutes.
With 10:43 to go, and with Sampson in the locker room, being tended to, Driesell ordered his team into a spread offense.
He ran the risk of embarrassment. Why slow the game down when Maryland was on a roll? Why not keep moving as long as Sampson wasn't around to help Virginia?
It took a second thought to catch up with Driesell. The fans here tonight carried posters of Driesell with a gas gauge tatooed on his forehead. The gauge read "E".
The gauge is wrong. On second thought, what offense is better than the spread against a slow Virginia team without its shot-blocking giant lurking at the hoop? Once past the plodding Cavaliers, Maryland could take the ball to the basket.
And it did. The first four times Maryland ran the spread, it scored baskets. Not only did the Terps build their lead to 56-51, they used up more than four minutes before Sampson came back to play.
After that, Maryland needed only to make its free throws to win this one.
And, yes, one field goal didn't hurt.
"Last year we played as individuals," Ernest Graham, ex-individual, said. "This year we're a unit. It's a new thing. We've got new players (not really, with nine of last year's first 10 back, but they are playing like new). And new coaches (all three assistants are new). It's a whole new setting."
"I figure I let him take a shot that wasn't all that good," said Jeff Lamp, the Virginia star who guarded Graham on the last shot. "He was outside the top of the key when he shot it."
When Virginia missed its last shot, Drisell went leapfrogging and Ernest Graham ran off the court shaking his fist in triumph and Jeff Jamp picked up the basketball and very deliberately kicked the damned thing 75 feet up into the bleachers.