One year ago in the ACC tournament semi-finals Albert King was unable to play for Maryland because of a sprained right ankle. His team never had a chance.
Tonight, King was healthy and looking to make amends. He did.
Actually, Clemson played a superb game in losing to the Terps, 91-85. On any other night the Tigers would have won. But on any other night they would not have had to deal with King. Throwing in every possible shot imaginable, King scored a career-high 38 points on 17-of-25 shooting from the floor. To prove he isn't just a shooter, he grabbed 10 rebounds, made five steals and had three assists, all of them spectacular.
The Terps (23-5), will face Duke in Saturday's 8:30 p.m. (WJLA-TV-7) final. The Blue Devils (21-8) upset second-seeded North Carolina, 75-61, tonight to advance to the final. The Tar Heels are now 21-6 and Clemson is 20-8.
"Most unbelievable player I've ever seen," said Clemson's Bobby Conrad. "He can beat you about a million ways. Tonight, he was unreal."
Greg Manning was not too shabby either. The baby-faced junior had 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting, the last five points coming during the final 1:34 of the game after the Tigers had cut an 18-point lead to one.
"Clemson came back like that on us in College Park," said Manning, lying flat on his back with a slight muscle pull in his back. "We know what we have to do in those situations. We've been there before."
Manning is listed as questionable for the final because of his back injury.
The situation had gotten tense because Maryland could not handle Clemson's pressure defense and because the Tigers were getting inside consistently, a problem compounded by Buck Williams having fouled out with 6:10 left.
Two free throws by Conrad cut the margin, once 58-40, to 82-81 with 1:40 left.
Reggie Jackson broke the Clemson press and fed Manning, cutting along the right baseline. Manning drove underneath, flipped the ball against the glass and through the basket as Mitchell Wiggins fouled him with 1:34 left. Manning's free throw was good and the Terps led, 85-81.
Billy Williams, Clemson's high scorer with 19 points, missed a jumper from the corner and King brought down the rebound. Seconds later, Jackson was fouled and made one of two free throws to give the Terps an 86-81 lead. Conrad hit on a drive with 1:11 left, and the Tigers were only down by three, 86-83.
Again, Clemson fouled Jackson. This time Jackson was perfect, making the score 88-83 with 50 seconds to go. John Campbell (13 points) scored on a layup with 39 seconds left to get Clemson back within three, 88-85.But Maryland inbounded to its best foul shooter, Manning, and he ran the clock down to 29 seconds before he was fouled. Two swishes later, Maryland was home free with a 90-85 lead.
In a game filled with spectacular shots, wonderful moves and, essentially, 40 minutes of superb basketball, King rose above all the others, doing everything but analysis for TV.
"I remembered last year when I couldn't play and two years ago when I played but was hurt," King said. "I knew we had never been past the semifinals. I was definitely up, I wanted the ball, I probably forced a couple of shots early because of it."
Almost everything King threw up the first half seemed destined for the bottom of the net. He hit a variety of jumpers, several drives, a slam dunk off a steal, an alley-oop dunk and a reverse layup. In all, 10 of 15 shots for 22 points. He also had three steals and set up a Buck Williams dunk with a perfect alley-oop pass.
Shooting 66 percent the first 20 minutes -- Manning was seven of eight -- the Terps had a 56-40 intermission margin and looked to be on their way to an easy night.
But there were problems inside. Clemson, with three 6-foot-10 starters, held Williams to six points and five rebounds and, at the same time, fouled both Williams and backup center Taylor Baldwin out early.
Those problems inside, along with 11 second half turnovers, made things difficult for the Terps. They still led, 74-62, when Williams fouled out with 6:10 left.
Time after time Clemson refused to let Maryland set up in its spread offense. Williams and Larry Nance (17 points) got hot and Clemson quickly made the game a tight one.
A steal and drive by Conrad with 4:05 left cut it to 78-75 and it was nervous time, especially since Maryland had not gotten past this round since 1974, the year of the memorable final against David Thompson and State.
"We dug ourselves in a deep hole but our defense got us back in it," Billy Williams said. "In the end though it was too much Maryland, too much Albert."
King, so melancholy a year ago after failing to play when North Carolina embarrassed the Terps, 94-71, was clearly pleased as he sat and answered a barrage of questions.
"This was our kind of game," he said. "We like to play the running game, that's our style of basketball. I think we were all disappointed by the way we played yesterday and we wanted to make up for it.
"We want this tournament. I want this tournament."
That much is clear. As Graham put it, "We still have something to prove.
We're the champs but we've never won the tournament. People have said we can't win it. We want to prove them wrong."
The Terps have proved plenty already. If there were doubts remaining in anyone's mind about King, they were certainly dispelled tonight.
"He's a great player and they're a great team," said Tiger Coach Bill Foster.
The last remaining roadblock between the Terps and a dreamed of ACC tourney title is Duke, reborn this week after a disappointing regular season.
Tonight, against a team that had destroyed them by 25 points just six days ago, the Blue Devils were again dominant.
With center Mike Gminski controlling the game at both ends with 24 points (11 of 12 shooting) and 19 rebounds, Duke jumped to a 12-4 lead and the Tar Heels never got even.
Twice in the second half Carolina closed to three points, but each time Duke had the answer -- Gminski. It was not a one-man effort though. Eugene Banks had 15 points, Kenny Dennard 14 and Vince Taylor 13. Duke shot an incredible 73 percent for the night.
Al Wood was the only Tar Heel in double figures, with 17 points, as Banks held Mike O'Koren to four points -- four days after Banks was visibly angered by O'Koren being chosen over him for first team all-conference.
So it comes down to Duke and Maryland, two teams that do not like each other.
"It'll be a brutal game," Gminski predicted. "The boards will be crucial and we have to play great defense, Keep a hand in their face.
"The only thing I knew for sure is it will be emotional. We both want the game and each other. I'm looking forward to it."
He is not the only one.