Last night, after three months of frustration, self-doubt and anguish, Maryland finally played the basketball it was supposed to play all season, destroying third-ranked Virginia, 85-2, to advance to tonight's 8:30 final of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against North Carolina.
Leading for the last 35 minutes of the game and never seriously challenged in the second half, the Terps went on a 12-0 spurt midway through the final half to build a 62-40 lead, completely humiliating the top-seeded Cavaliers.
"Tonight," said Buck Williams, "we could have beaten anybody: Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio State. Pick the sport: football, soccer, baseball. We just had it going."
Offensively, the major figures were Albert King, who had 24 points, and Greg Manning, who scored 12 of his 17 points during the first eight minutes to key the quick burst that put the Terps in command, 20-9, before the Cavaliers knew what had hit them.
But it was at the defensive end of the floor that this game was won -- even on a night when the Terrapins shot 60 percent from the field. Although he had much help from his teammates, Williams dominated the defense in this game.
Six games after Ralph Sampson had overwhelmed him, Williams turned the tables. With Ernest Graham, King or Charles Pittman sloughing off Jeff Jones and Craig Robinson to help him, Williams held Sampson to 10 points on five-of-13 shooting, and eight rebounds.
In the meantime Williams scored 11 points, had 14 rebounds and keyed the Maryland fast break with his outlet passes and by filling the lane, often beating Sampson with his speed.
"It was just a matter of pride," said Williams who shot one for nine and had six shots blocked by Sampson on Saturday. "Saturday, I had a bad day. Tonight, it was the same for them and for Ralph. I just wanted to prove myself."
In another corner of the jammed locker room, King, who broke a school record for high fives when he came out of the game, smiled when someone asked him about Williams hearing the Virginia students chanting, "the Buck stops here," on Saturday.
"I know he heard it," King said, with an all-knowing smile. "Buck is a competitor. He wanted to go out tonight and prove to himself that he could compete with anybody, no matter how big, or how strong or how tall they are."
In some way, Williams' determination last night was a microcosm of the entire team's emotional state. Scorned laughed at, counted out by many they came here seeking vindication. Beating the Virginia team that had beaten them twice and had become the conference darling in much the same way the Terps were year ago was the way to do it.
"We had something to prove tonight," Manning said. "This was easily the most intense we've been all season. We played a great game. When we get running, get going we're a great team."
From the beginning last night it was clear this was not to be Virginia's night. Before the game, Sampson began hyperventilating. He came out briefly in the first half, breathing hard. Lee Baker, nursing a deep thigh bruise, tried to play but was ineffective in nine minutes.
But that didn't really matter. This was the night the Terps finally unleashed the running game that made them so fabulous a year ago. From the first minute on they rebounded with a vengeance, outlet the ball and ran. And ran. And ran.
Before the game was eight minutes old the Terps led 20-9. Although no one knew it at the time, Virginia would never get closer than seven points again as it suffered its worst defeat since a 25-point loss in 1978 to Duke, 99 games ago.
Even with King and Graham on the bench with three fouls for the last eight minutes of the half, Virginia could not make a run as Driesell slowed down his offense. While the Terps didn't score often, they scored enough to lead, 35-25, at the half, getting their last point on a Manning free throw which was the result of a technical on Virginia Coach Terry Holland.
And, even with King and Graham out, Williams controlled the boards as his team went on to finish the night outrebounding Virginia, 43-33.
The only thing keeping the Cavaliers within shouting distance was Jeff Lamp, who finished with 25 points. "I wouldn't say we played our worst game," Lamp said, "I'd say Maryland played its best game."
Thanks to Lamp, Virginia had catch-up ideas, as Duke did Thursday, when suddenly, the Terps exploded. With the score 50-40 and 11 minutes left, Pittman, who played a strong game with eight points and four rebounds, dropped in a layup. King hit a 10-foot banker.Holland's timeout cooled off no one on the Maryland side.
King hit again, then made two foul shots. When Pittman dunked off a gorgeous pass from Manning it was 62-40 with 7:45 left. When Holland called another timeout, the Maryland bench emptied to join the starters in a brief midcourt celebration.
It was, clearly, a moment of purgation.
"We haven't been like that all season," Manning said. "What a great feeling."
They got it. And now for the fifth time in his career, Driesell stands one victgory from the ACC championship which has eluded him for 12 years. His awareness of that became evident as the final seconds ticked off.
As the subs played out the string, Driesell got up and walked down the bench, tapping each starter on the knee.
"The one we really want," Driesell said to each one, "is tomorrow night."
And if they get that one, the Terps will have written one of the most dramatic riches-to-rags-to-riches stories of this season.
"Maybe," Graham said with a laugh, "we had it planned this way all along."