Thus it should always be for the stallers -- hoisted by their own petards.
Last night, the University of Maryland was the latest culprit to try to ruin an excellent college basketball game by going to a freeze just when the last, and finest, chunk of the contest was about to begin.
And, as basketball fans instinctively wish that it would always be, the Terrapins played with ever-increasing timidity and trepidation until, finally, they gave away a game to No. 2-ranked Virginia that they probably should have won.
If the Atlantic Coast Conference has a trademark, and a glaring flaw, it is the league-wide fascination with letting the air out of the ball and the life out of the game. At Cole Field House last night. Lefty Driesell gave his Dean Smith imitation by telling his team to play keepaway with a four-point lead and 6 1/2 minutes still to play.
What could be more ridiculous? For the first 80 percent of a thrilling evening, Maryland had battled above the rim and on the floor to prove to the unbeaten Cavs that they could and would be beaten. So, just as Maryland made it most decisive thrust, just as the sellout crowd rose to its feet in jubilation and waved its signs saying, "Virginia is for losers," Driesell gave in to the ACC's knee-jerk strategic gambit; the playground stall.
Once, this was the correct ploy against Virginia, a club that just a year ago had a big, talented, but slow backcourt that could not apply pressure, withstand it, or defeat a slowdown. But that was a year ago. Now, UVa has two sub-6-foot freshmen, Othell Wilson and Ricky Stokes, who have poise beyond their years and speed to burn.
For the second time in two games, Virginia chewed up the nefarious delay game. On Saturday, Carolina's Smith punctured the ball with a six-point lead and 8 1/2 minutes left. He lost by six. Last night, Driesell's agaony was extended to the final seconds. However, in the end, the shift in momentum the voluntary relinquishing of a sense of superiority, was too much for Maryland. Like so many teams before them, they went to a shameful, unworthy tactic, and, before they knew it, were playing shameful, unworthy basketball.
Even the crowd at Cole, which chants obscenties when foes stall against the Terps, had the good taste to greet their own team with a smattering of boos when they began to play catch instead of playing basketball.
The erosion of the Terp's excellence was inexorable. In their first stalling possession, Reggie Jackson charged a defender. Next time down, Charles Pittman passed the ball directly to a Wahoo. The crack in the dike got worse. Once a team admits that it must tease its foe, rather than challenge it, an erosion of the will often begins. Especially when the team doing the freezing is as flamboyant and emotional as the Terrapins.
In the last three minutes, Maryland did everything possible to beat itself. First, Buck Williams, who had played so nobly in neutralizing 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, missed the second of two free throws. Maryland got the rebound, but immediately turned it over again. Next time, it was Graham whose first free throw in a one-and-one was so pathetically timid that it barely reached the front of the rim. The Terps got that rebound, too, but traveled with it.
Once the panic is on, it is hard to reverse. The calmest Terp foul shooter, Dutch Morley, after making three in a row, missed the one charity toss he wanted most, the one that would have given Maryland a three-point lead with 22 seconds remaining.
The team that is agressive, that is attacking, has every sort of psychological advantage. Who knows, what twinges in the synapses of the brain control the split-second reactions that rule sports?
The final 10 seconds of Virginia's victory were a demonstration of the entire syndrome. Jeff Lamp fired up a 23-footer from the left corner that would tie the game at 64-64. The ball rattled the rim and jumped a yard straight up in the air. The nervous shooter never gets a break. The attacking, gutsy gunner sometime does. Lamp did, as the ball plopped through the net.
Perhaps Maryland's fate was sealed then. A case of nerves is hard to shake. Virginia, that ineffible momentum with it, went for the jugular.
"In that spot, with the score tied, we'd usually play a pressure defense, but play it soft, so as not to foul," explained UVa Coach Terry Holland. "But, things were going our way, so we decided to surprise them."
Virginia went to its small, tough, tenacious lineup with Stokes and Wilson at guard, trying to deny the inbound pass. Maryland was stunned. The mentality of the freeze had frozen them. All their reactions were a fraction slow. The man throwing the inbounds pass, Ernest Graham, complained, "I practice that play every day. I count to three in my mind, then call 'time' before the official gets to four."
The mind only needs to miscalculate by a hair's breadth. And Graham's did.
The time out came too late. Instead of Maryland going for the last-second shot, it was Virginia suddenly in control. When it came time for Virginia to run a play, it worked so smoothly that Lamp was shocked to find himself open, 10 feet from the basket on the left baseline.
As Virginia basked in its victory, a Wahoo fan congratulated Holland on "another cerebral triumph."
Perhaps, in a sense, it was.
Just as likely, this game was a cerebral defeat for Maryland. In basketball, when you try to ice the ball, the thing that freezes first is usually your head.
So it was last night. So it should always be.