So near, yet so far.

For almost 57 minutes on this gorgeous afternoon, the 32,443 University of Virginia homecoming fans in Scott Stadium gleefully anticipated the end of a long and painful drought -- 19 consecutive losses to Clemson.

Three minutes later, they were still waiting. In that time, Clemson turned an apparent 24-17 defeat into a 27-24 victory that extended Virginia's skein of frustration to 20 games. Bill Blake's 11-yard return of a blocked punt with 3:05 left and Obed Ariri's winning 52-yard field goal with six seconds remaining dropped Virginia to 2-3, 1-2 in the Atlantic Coast Confe Conference, and raised Clemson to 4-1. It was Clemson's first ACC game. c

And even the coaches didn't believe it.

"This was the most difficult loss I've ever had to put up with," said an obviously disappointed Dick Bestwick. "It was particularly difficult because I thought our team played well enough to win. It was unbelievable the way we lost last week (45-21 to West Virginia), and even more unbelievable the way we lost today."

"We played well enough to win, but just barely," said Clemson's Danny Ford. "But we still haven't played like we're supposed to, or like I think we're supposed to. We're living on borrowed time. I hope they don't keep this up. I thought I was going to have to give a losing speech."

With good reason. The teams were tied, 10-10, at halftime, but the Cavaliers turned the Tigers to paper in the third quarter. Brian Shumock intercepted a Mike Gasque pass midway through the period and returned it to the Cavalier 39.

Then Lindsay Delaney, a transfer from Pittsburgh who was starting his first game -- Todd Kirtley had been benched following a poor performance against West Virginia -- tamed the Tigers in six plays. The key was a 47-yard screen pass to leading rusher Tommy Vigorito (22 carries, 83 yards), who took the ball near midfield and didn't stop until he had reached the Clemson 16. Three plays and one penalty later, Vigorito ran seven yards untouched into the end zone. Wayne Morrison's conversion gave Virginia a 17-10 lead.

The lead doubled in less than 90 seconds. Shumock, now Gasque's favorite receiver, picked off another pass, two plays later. It was the senior cornerback's 12th career interception, a school record. He was tackled on the Tiger 21. Four plays later, Quentin Walker ran around right end from the five. With a two touchdown lead and barely a quarter left, Virginia seemed to be a lock.

But Clemson still held the key. On the final play of the third quarter, Tiger starting quarterback Homer Jordan, now back in Ford's good graces, passed 51 yards to split end Jerry Gillaird. On the next play, he pitched to tailback Brendan Crite, who ran 26 yards for the touchdown that halved Clemson's deficit. When neither team could move in the next 11 minutes, Virginia's lead loked larger and larger.

After that the dam broke.

"This was in our grasp, but I guess we haven't learned how to hold it yet," sighed Delaney, who completed eight of 15 passes for 156 yards and seems sure to replace Kirtley for the near future. "It hurts, but we can't let it get us down."

If I've done anything at all," Bestwick said, "I've kept these kids playing hard whether we're good or bad. And we have to keep doing that. You can't convince me they're a better team. Someday it's going to even out."