Albert King.

Prince Albert.

Albert, the King.


When it mattered most last night for the University of Maryland basketball team . . . when a series of improbable accomplishments moved North Carolina within reach of victory . . . when hearts took a long vacation between beats . . . it was then, in the last minute and a half, that Albert King stepped forever up from the commoners.

The King won this one.

It ended 70-69, Maryland. Four times in the last two mintues, North Carolina moved within a single point of a team clearly its physical superior. Maryland led by 11 points once. Certifying again its distinction as the proud bearer of a majestic tradition, Carolina rallied insistently, relentlessly, even astonishingly (as we shall see).

But always came the prince of College Park. Albert King did it.Three times in the last minute and a half, three times when Carolina moved within a single point, King then scored two for Maryland to keep the Tar Heels at a frustrating distance.

And at the very end, it was King who did it.

Carolina had accomplished the improbably and had the incredible at hand, needing only to score off an inbounds pass with two seconds left to win this game in the other guy's house.

It was a little thing King did. No slam-dunk, no 360-degree reverse pivot winding up with a 17-foot jumper. He didn't leap over tall buildings All he did was a little thing that only smart basketball players do. He had an idea where the ball would go. He watched the passer. He saw his eyes. And when the ball came inbounds, King reached quickly in front of Carolina's John Virgil.

King barely tipped the ball.

It barely changed direction.

But Virgil couldn't catch it. It rolled away.

And when all hell broke loose -- this is the first time in 15 seasons that the Terps have beaten Carolina in both regular-season games -- there was the coach, Lefty Driesell, throwing his left fist skyward in celebration.

Where was Albert King?

Well, he was hurrying off the floor in that elegant shuffle of his and, on his back, in wonderful symbolism of what the prince has come to mean to his team, the guard Dutch Morley hitched a ride of triumph.

Spare me any TV thrillers tonight. Tell me no ghost stories. Take the Ann-Margret posters off my office wall. I've had enough excitment for this week. They ought to take the film of this Maryland-Carolina game to the NBA office and say, "Hey, guys, here's basketball."

Carolina shot 63 percent the first half; terrific, good enough most nights to build a 15-point lead against anybody. Last night, it was second best to Maryland's 63.6 percent. Maryland led a halftime, 44-38, and seemed en route to an easy victory when it moved the lead to 56-45 in the first seven minutes of the second half.

By then Maryland was on a roll that moved at least one witness to begin, for the first time really, serious consideration of whether Driesel's team can win the national championship.

By then King had 14 points, Greg Manning 15, Ernest Graham 15. Manning had just thrown down three straight from the outside, taking the burden off big Buck Williams and King inside. And Maryland's defense, if not hostilely aggressive at least earnest in its pursuit, allowed Carolina only one field goal the first 4 1/2 minutes.

Another blowout? Maryland belted Duke, 101-82, last weekend. A national championship available? The way King is perfect at both ends and on the boards, the strength of Williams in close, with the quick guard Manning shooting 65 percent for the year, with Graham a team players as well as a shooter -- in this year of no superteam with great depth, all this means Maryland has as good a chance as anyone.

Whoa, wait a minute.Visions of a national championship were quickly replaced by the specter of embarrassing defeat, for with that 11-point lead Driesell chose to go his slowdown offense. The coach calls it a "control" offense, the idea borrowed from an old rival, Al McGuire, that produces easy layups and free throws.

Not last night. In the control mode, Maryland didn't score a point for seven minutes and 11 seconds. King missed one of those easy layups, then Graham missed a free throw and a short jumper. To win a national championship with a slowdown offense, such omissions are intolerable.

Soon enough it was a one-point game, down to 62-61 when Carolina scored with 1:45 to go.

From the control offense, King banked in a 10-foot jumper to make it 64-61. With 14 seconds to go, he made two free throws for a three-point lead. With five seconds to go, he again made two free throws for a 70-67 lead.

It was over.

Or was it? Not with Carolina. A baseball pitcher in high school, Carolina's Rich Yonaker threw the inbounds pass the length of the court, threw it 95 feet precisely where he wanted it, right next to the rim. Al Wood turned the astonishing pass into a layup.

It took two seconds.

And when Maryland threw away the inbounds pass, causing another second to click away, North Carolina owned the ball and a chance to earn a memorable victory.

Albert King took away that chance. Carolina said King fouled Virgil. No, he didn't. Maybe Al Wood, trying to get loose underneath, was bumped rudely by Williams. That wasn't a foul, either. It was only a nice play by Williams.

And in the press room, Carolina publicity man Rick Brewer called out to the assembled typists. "The last time Carolina lost twice to the same team in high school, Carolina's Rich Yonakor threw the the year State won the national championship," he said.