Disaster almost struck the University of Maryland tonight. The Terrapins did almost everything they could to give a game to a mediocre Pittsburgh team, but won, 69-66, in overtime because the Panthers managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
"We survived," said Coach Lefty Driesell, clearly disgusted with his team's performance before a sparse crowd of 8,567. "That's about the only good thing you can say. We're really struggling right now, I don't know what it is. Maybe we're tired. Maybe I'll give them three or four days off or maybe I'll practice them when we get home tonight."
The 14th-ranked Terrapins (14-4) won despite losing the ball 26 times against Pitt's 1-3-1 zone defense; they won after being down seven points with 2:56 to play, and they won after both Greg Manning and Albert King hit the floor hard but weren't hurt seriously.
This was the night of the Great Experiment: Ernest Graham moving to point guard with Charles Pittman taking his place at forward. That switch at guard lasted 13 minutes. Driesell tried Dutch Morley. He tried Reggie Jackson. "I may play there next," he said, not smiling.
Pitt (9-8) almost won because it came up with steal after steal in the second half. The Panthers lost because they couldn't make their free throws down the stretch when the game was theirs to win.
"The game was right there," said Pitt Coach Roy Chipman. "But we missed our foul shots and we got kind of lazy on defense when we got up seven.That let them get inside and that killed us."
Trailing, 62-55, with 2:56 left, the Terps went inside to King for a layup. Then Carlton Neverson missed the first of his one-and-one free throws and Morley whipped a pass inside to King, who was fouled as he made the shot. The free throw cut the margin to 62-60 with 2:30 left.
Sam Clancy, who tied Dwayne Wallace and Lennie McMillian for Pitt scoring honors with 17, missed a short jumper, grabbed the rebound but was called for walking. King missed a short jumper but the long rebound came to Manning, who totaled 19 points and made eight of nine shots, and his drive tied the game at 62 with 1:28 left.
Morley fouled Neverson. Smart move. With 1:09 left, Neverson badly missed the foul shot and the Terps held the ball for a last shot. They called time with 11 seconds left, inbounded and Manning, double-teamed, passed to Morley for an open 15-footer. But it as long at the buzzer.
"Blew my assist," Manning said, able to laugh because his team had escaped. "I was supposed to either look for Albert on the base line or penetrate. When I did they came to me and I hit Dutch."
The Terps, now 3-0 in overtime games -- "Maybe we should play 'em all in overtime," Driesell said -- were in control throughout the extra period. Buck Williams, hounded by two and three men all night and held to seven points in regulation, made a short hook to put the Terps up, 64-62, with 3:57 left.
Wallace and McMillian missed short jumpers, Graham rebounded and the Terps spread out. Williams was fouled with 3:01 left and sank both shots to make it 66-62. Wallace's bomb cut it to 67-66 with 23 seconds left, but Williams scored the last of his 13 points with two foul shots with nine seconds left.
"We're still not playing great or anything, but we got the win," Manning said. "We needed this one bad. We lose this kind of game and it would really hurt us with the NCAA. You have to win these."
King played as aggressively as he did last year, getting nine rebounds and working for shots all night. Graham, even with the time at guard, rebounded well with 12. The Terps beat Pitt in that department, 40-32. That was one of the few statistics Driesell smiled about. Graham also had nine assists.
Still, the victory hardly set off a celebration in the Maryland locker room. The Terps had to go overtime to beat a decidedly inferior team when that team only shot 40 percent.
"We couldn't have gotten the ball inside to Wilt Chamberlain the way we passed tonight," Driesell said. "I'm really not sure what I'm gonna do next. This team can play better than this, I know that."
"We're all trying," King said. "We all wanted to win, we worked hard, we're just making mistakes."
Driesell may give his players Wednesday off to rest their bodies -- Manning took the hard fall and King was limping as he walked to the bus -- and their minds.
"We're mentally tired, no question," Williams said. "We've been playing a lot of really top teams. These guys may not have been great, but they were good."
Just good enough to lose on an evening Maryland could have been beaten. How worried is Driesell?
"The way we're going, he said, "we're going to have to struggle to beat Georgia Tech Saturday."
He's very worried.