Maryland teetered on a tightrope today before Albert King boosted it to a less-than-great, but satisfying, 51-49 overtime victory over Georgia Tech in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
The Terps, 22-5 and facing a semi-final game Friday at 7 p.m. against the tough Clemson Tigers, survived 45 minutes of scratching and clawing by the Yellow Jackets and a brilliant performance down the stretch by Brook Steppe.
In the end it was the 6-6 King, the main reason Maryland is the top seed in this tournament, who shoved the Terps away from what could have been a disaster.
King, who finished with 16 points, popped in a soft seven-foot baseline jumper with five seconds left in overtime to put Maryland up, 51-49. That proved to be the final score.
After calling time with three seconds left, Tech got the ball to Steppe, who had sent the game into overtime and shot three for three in the extra period.
Steppe, game high scorer with 21 points, caught the pass at center court, dribbled to the left of the foul line and went up with Ernest Graham on him.
"It was a decent shot, a makeable shot," said Steppe.
Graham made it a tougher shot by jumping into Steppe's face -- without touching him -- as he went up."I just wanted to make him double-pump," Graham said. "I didn't want to let him get a clean shot so I jumped to the side so I couldn't foul him."
Steppe's miss ended a tense, exciting and very physical game. "They do it all out there," said Buck Williams, who led the Terps with 18 points and 10 rebounds. "They push, they shove, they fight and they scratch. And, boy, do they talk."
Steppe, a 6-foot-5 junior, is one of the main talkers for Tech. He also is the best player on a team which finished 8-18 in its first season in the ACC.
"He keeps talking the whole game," said Graham, who matched up with him most of the afternoon. "But he backs it up."
From the outset it was apparent that this was going to be a difficult game for Maryland. "They had everything to gain and nothing to lose," said Coach Lefty Driesell. "We played the whole first half like we were afraid of losing."
With the crowd clearly behind the underdog Yellow Jackets, seventh-ranked Maryland took only a 26-25 lead into the locker room at halftime.
If the fans thought the pace of the game was slow in the first 20 minutes, they hadn't seen anything yet.
The Terps jumped to a 36-31 lead eight minutes into the second half when Graham got two of his three baskets (seven points) consecutively. But then Maryland went cold.
The game turned sloppy and then rough, with bodies hitting the floor more frequently than jump shots hit the net.
King hit two free throws with 9:51 left to give the Terps a 38-33 margin. Maryland made one field goal and five points for the remainder of regulation.
Tech made three straight baskets to take a 39-38 lead with 6:41 left on a Steve Neal layup. At that point, Williams got the Terps' last field goal, a soft jumper with 6:09 to play.
After a Yellow Jacket turnover, Maryland spread out, hoping to get to the foul line. The thinking was good, but the execution wasn't. King, fouled with 4:40 left, barely hit the front iron. Horton rebounded and Kerry O'Brien (10 points) bombed an 18-footer with 3:42 left for a 41-40 lead.
"It was nervous time," said King. "They were doing what they had to do and we were basically messing things up."
Things looked no better when Horton tipped away a Graham-to-King pass and Steppe grabbed it. Tech spread out and the Coliseum rocked.
"We could have folded right then," Driesell said. "But this team doesn't fold under pressure. It makes the big play."
This time it was Reggie Jackson. After the Terps had committed two fouls -- giving them five for the half, thus no shot for Tech -- Jackson tipped away a Steppe-to-Horton pass and Graham grabbed the loose ball and was fouled with 1:42 left.
After Coach Dwane Morrison called time, Graham hit the first foul shot, then nearly shot an air ball on the second.Williams grabbed the rebound.
Tied at 41, the Terps spread to hold for one shot. They called time with 13 seconds left but never ran their play. As Dutch Morley started to drive the left side, O'Brien fouled him with eight seconds on the clock.
Morley, who had gone two-for-two in a similar tie-game situation earlier this season against North Carolina State, was just as good this time. Maryland led, 43-41.
But the Terps still weren't home free. Tech got the ball to Steppe on the right side, 17 feet out and he swished a jumper.
With both teams playing extremely cautiously, there were only eight shots taken from the field in the overtime. The first seven went in.
Williams dunked -- Steppe answered with a spinning, slashing drive -- 45 -45. Maryland spread out and King hit a short jumper with 3:26 left as Steppe fouled him. It looked like the foul came before the shot, but the basket counted. King missed the foul shot. Again Steppe answered, this time from 15 feet.
Greg Manning (eight points) got free back door for a layup. Steppe, spinning through two players, was golden again. It was 49-49 with 45 seconds left.
Again, the Terps held, calling time with 11 seconds left. This time Graham looped a pass to King, who turned and popped in a soft jumper over Steve Shaw.
"We had run out of options on the play and were just freelancing," King said. "Ernest found me, I shot."
Tech called time with three seconds left. As he had done in regulation, Driesell told his players to give a foul -- they had one left before one and one. Again, they failed, again Steppe shot.
This time, it rimmed out.
"We walked that thin line, I guess," King said grinning. Walked it, teetered on it, but didn't fall.