With less than 10 seconds left and the score tied at 53 last night in Capital Centre, Maryland's Greg Manning lowered his head and dribbled hard for the basket, not realizing he would be driving toward the strangest bit of Atlantic Coast irony in memory.
Let's leave Manning as he moves on Tom Emma and drift back about a year, to Maryland versus Duke for the ACC tournament title in Greensboro Coliseum to an ending overflowing with controversy. The Terrapins' Buck Williams seems to have final-seconds rebound measured for the winning points, but falls off balance atop Duke's Kenny Dennard and missis it.
Maryland screams undercut and a foul.
Duke screams no harm, no foul.
The Devils win the argument -- and a one-point game.
It's time to rejoin Manning as he gains a step on his hell-bent drive. But as the Maryland senior gains the advantage a few feet from the basket, Duke's Vince Taylor moves into his path. With four seconds left, there is a collision -- and another controversy.
Charge, Duke yells.
"A very good charge," Gene Banks emphasizes later.
Block, screams Maryland.
This year Maryland got the benefit of the doubt. Taylor seemed square to Manning, with his feet firmly on the floor, which would seem to justify a charge call. Maryland would argue that -- finally -- ACC justice prevailed.
And of course, in one more fitting touch, Ernest Graham had a chance to shing at last, to grab the rebound of Manning's missed free throw and make two of his own for the three-point victory.
At the end, Maryland let out perhaps the largest sigh of any team ever. In one of the most inelegant games you could imagine, one in which the officials managed to join in the inconsistency with assorted lousy tosses on jump balls ans such, the Terrapins nearly sank to yet more unimagined depths.
Maryland had a nine-point lead with five minutes left against a Duke team without a natural center and with the fellow playing center limping on a gimpy ankle and limited to 16 minutes the entire game. This is enough to assure victory against good teams; it would have been good enough last night if the Terrapins had not stopped to think -- and then stopped playing.
Keepaway, stall-ball, is a game with which the Terrapins are unfamiliar. The four corners to Maryland is like the prevent defense is to many pro football teams. What is often prevents is victory.
So the best chance the opposition has to win is for Maryland to dedicate itself to not shooting, to passing under pressure, to avoiding all the wonderful open-court maneuvers that provided the lead in the first place. If Lefty Driesell was trying to be dramatic, as well as a fashion setter, he outdid himself.
Until the embarrassment began, we had given Driesell yet another genius point. Surely, he had ordered those new, glowing-yellow uniforms that fairly smack you in the eye for a reason, to keep his players' attention. Undoubtedly, he had known that the only way they could lose was to fall asleep.
Duke, those devils, played the one style that offered a chance for victory -- plodding, boring, hoping Maryland would invent a way to lose. The final 100 seconds of the first half offered the best clue about how hard Duke was working.
Down 29-22, it was Duke that stalled for the last shot. Heady, clever Duke passed and passed, while Maryland sat back in a zone and grinned. Pass after pass after pass -- until Taylor threw up a 20-footer that scarcely hit the rim with six seconds left.
With what passes for a center, Mike Tissaw, ailing, Duke realized its only chance was to lure Buck Williams away from the basket with a spread offense. This would work only when Maryland was playing man-for-man defense -- and Maryland would play that only as long as Duke had the lead.
So every Duke shot mattered more than usual. But by the time Maryland gained the lead, 9-7, its advantage was more than most fans realized. Against a slowdown offense, two points is like four. And so on. Which meant that Maryland was in splendid control with that nine-point lead it got by running for one furious second-half stretch had playing exceptional defense.
Reggie Jackson, for instance, had two blocked shots and a steal the first five times Duke had possession the first half. With Williams on the bench in foul trouble, Maryland still got running. And when Manning, Albert King and Graham sank the sort of shots that have endeared us to them over the years, the Terrapins had a nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes to play.
It was at almost this exact time that Maryland began to doze and its fans began an exceedingly premature celebration.
The knot of Terrapin yellers did an about-face, toward the Virginia section and started to dream about the semi-final matchup tonight. Buck and his revenge against Ralph Sampson, a chance to upset a top-five team and recapture a measure of respect.
"We want UVA, We want Uva," the fans chanted.
They nearly got beDeviled.
A list of specific Maryland sins in the final five minutes would fill this entire page. One memory remains, that to Williams 10 feet from the Maryland basket and 10 yards ahead of any defender with about 30 seconds left and the Terrapins ahead by a point.
And noboody passed him the ball. Nobody thought to look ahead, so defensive minded was the offense on one inbounds play under the Duke basket. Had either Manning or Dutch Morley looked down court,he would have fed wide-open Williams for a certain game-clinching dunk.
Instead, Morley lost the ball. Almost immediately he fouled Taylor, who made one of two free throws and tied the game with 26 seconds left.It was typical of the final frenzied minutes, Maryland playing with its head inside its shell and Duke delighted at the chance to steal a victory.
Certain victory melted into doubt and then doubt melted into near panic. And an ending that made us realize once more what draws us to this mad event.