No one is more cruelly candid about Reggie Jackson than Reggie Jackson. Of course, he knew Clemson would send him to the free-throw line tonight in the ACC tournament semifinals. It was the only way left to beat Maryland.
Usually, Jackson is safely nailed to the bench at such times, when Maryland is clinging to a slight lead against as cerebral a team as any in the country. But his surrogate, Maryland's designated pressure free-throw shooter, Dutch Morley, already was on the court.
There was nowhere to hide Jackson.
"Before, I just hadn't accepted the pressure," he was saying, moments after accepting all Clemson could deal. "Choke? I feel I'd been doing that at Maryland. I hadn't been following through. I'd been backing off (with his shooting hand)."
But there was a play about a half-minute before the former Reggie Rock assured Maryland's victory with three free throws in the final 79 seconds, one nearly as tense and surely as significant. It followed one of the low points of his athletic life.
With two minutes to play and Maryland ahead by five points, Jackson had been open for the easiest shot in basketball, a layup, and no Tiger was within five feet. The pass was crisp and impossible to miss. So was the shot.
"I knew they were overplaying us," he recalled, "so I snuck down low. Too low actually. I was too far under the basket when I got the ball. And I shot it too hard. Choked it, really, 'cause I never miss shots like that.
"I was feeling so low, I just wanted another chance, one time to redeem myself."
It came a half-minute later, after Clemson pulled to within a point and was clawing for the ball on the inbounds pass. Bobby Conrad threw himself at the ball -- and went headlong into the Tiger bench. Jackson grabbed the ball and found himself with a two-on-one fast break.
It is one of those delicate plays that involve the emotion Maryland had been lacking those frantic final minutes: poise. And the most rattled Terrapin, Jackson, was the trigger man.
"You want to penetrate as far as possible," he explained, "and then dish it off."
That sounds infinitely easier than it is, especially from a fellow who had botched an even simpler play such a short time before. And Jackson is not a natural feeder.
This time, though, he ran the play splendidly, as though the once-peerless Brad Davis had drifted back from obscurity and sneaked inside Maryland uniform No. 15.
From just inside the free-throw line, the Clemson defender made his move toward Jackson -- and Jackson slipped the ball to Greg Manning, who not only made the layup but the free throw after being slapped.
Jackson's spirits soared, though not for long. He knew those bright Tigers would find a way to foul him. And with 1:19 left they did.
The free-throw line can be the loneliest spot in sports at such times. It has been basketball hell for Jackson during most of his two years at Maryland. From a high-school hotshot, cool and confident, a veritable Greg Manning -- Jackson had become a brick thrower.
Does one bad moment carry over in the mind to the next free throw? And the next? And the next?
"I'd say so," Jackson said. "You know everyone depends on you. Sometimes it gets to you. It's all mechanical, free-throw shooting is. You want to take your time. Concentrate and follow through."
The first shot swished. The second missed.
"But I knew why I missed," he said, "so I still had a positive attitude. I'd kinda stepped back from the line, not held my position."
On Maryland's next possession, the Tigers' Chris Dodds practically threw himself against Jackson, so intent was he to test the tentative Terrapin just once more. And once more Jackson tried to block everything from his mind except two simple instructions: concentrate and follow through.
"A few dribbles and a deep breath," he said. "I've been shooting 50 to 75 extra foul shots in practice each day. Tonight they paid off."
Indeed they did. His two successes gave the Terrapins a five-point lead with 50 seconds left. Manning kept it that way 20 seconds later by dribbling long enough to force Clemson to foul him.
Significantly -- and appropriately -- Maryland righted itself in the final three minutes with both centers, Buck Williams and Taylor Baldwin, having fouled out and Albert King rarely touching the ball.
Clemson was that smart.
"I knew I had to make them," Jackson said once more, still honest. "I tried the same mechanics and hoped they'd go. Hail Mary."