Maryland made it suspenseful last night, blowing a 16-point lead, but regrouped in the final three minutes to subdue Wake Forest, 83-77, and win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season basketball title, top seeding for the ACC Tournament, and an NCAA berth.
"This team's come further than any I've ever had," an emotional Coach Lefty Driesell said."I've had other teams which finished in the top 10 but they were picked in the top 10. I don't think this team was picked in the top 200 before the season started."
The ninth-ranked Terps are 20-5 overall and 10-3 in confererence play -- giving them a two-game lead, with one to play, over North Carolina and North Carolina State, conqueror last night of the Tar Heels in Raleigh. Wake is 4-9, 13-12.
The Deacons will finish seventh in the conference, but after playing for 30 minutes as if they planned to roll over for the Terps, they turned tigerish the last 10 minutes. Wake fought into the lead at 75-74 on a three-point play by Guy Morgan with 2:56 left.
"I don't know what happened," Driesell said. "We just kind of folded for a while. But then we came back."
Came back is an understatement. Suddenly faced with the spector of an extremely embarrassing defeat, the Terps marshaled their considerable forces.
First they set up Albert King down low and Wake fouled him. The 6-foot-6 junior made both free throws for a 76-75 Maryland lead with 2:46 to play; he would finish with 32 points to match his career high, making 14 of 20 field goal tries.
Morgan, who had 18 points, promptly bricked an 18-footer. Buck Williams -- 22 points, 12 rebounds -- rebounded and the Terps called time. Driesell had a choice: go to his spread offense or try to get the ball inside.
He chose the inside route and Williams made a soft six-footer for a 78-75 lead. Now the crowd of 14,012 in Cole Field House, strangely quiet most of the night, was in an uproar.
Wake Forest reacted -- David Morris threw the ball away trying to get it to Alvis Rogers on the baseline. He had good reason to want Rogers -- 30 points on 14-of-22 shooting.
Now, finally, Driesell ordered the spread. Quickly, Greg Manning found King inside for a slam dunk. Now it was 80-75 with 1:07 left.
Rogers, trying to get off a quick shot, launched an air ball and King found Williams for another ferocious dunk to make it 82-75. Time for the Terps to celebrate.
"We were picked sixth and we finished first," said King, who played in spite of a sore right arm, hurt dunking in practice Tuesday. "But we don't want to overcelebrate. This is just one step."
Clearly, bigger things were on Driesell's mind already.
"I guess we're the Cinderella team in the whole country," he said. "Now I just want to try and get this team ready to try and win the national championship. I think we could have a real shot at it and that's the thing I've always dreamed of."
Maryland's dreaming almost turned what started out as a walkaway into a disaster. The Terps, shooting 63 percent for the game (Wake hit 52 percent, jumped to a 21-10 lead; saw it whittled to 21-20, then upped it back to 48-32 before a 48-34 intermission.
They were cruising, still leading by 66-55 with 12 minutes to play, when Wake caught fire.
"We let up some on defense, I'm not really sure why," Williams said. "We let them get inside and they did a good job coming back."
With Rogers and Morgan muscling inside again and again, the Deacs whittled away, helped a lot by some of Maryland's 21 turnovers. Coach Carl Tacy, forced to shuffle his lineup with starting center Jim Johnston benched with a sprained ankle, went with three forwards (Wilbert Singleton being the third) much of the second half and it worked.
"Alvis just gave us a super effort again," Tacy said. "I can't say enough about him. But give Maryland credit. They deserved this title."
When they could have botched the whole thing this night, the Terps out together perhaps their best -- and most important -- spurt of the season.
"We just looked at each other and said, "Time to suck it up and go'," said Manning. "We hadn't lost in here (15-0) and we weren't about to blow it after coming this close."
Asked what he would do to celebrate his second regular-season ACC title in 11 years at Maryland, first since 1975, the often flamboyant Driesell said: "I'm just going to go home, get into bed and say a prayer."
Undoubtedly he finished that prayer with a rousing AMEN.