Four seconds remained in last night's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Time was out. Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell looked at his players as they huddled and said, almost imploringly: "One steal, one great play and we'll be ACC champions. This is for everything, right now."
With 19,035 fans in Capital Centre on their feet and in a frenzy the Terrapins and North Carolina walked back onto the court, the Tar Heels leading, 61-60. If these Terps were the team of destiny they appeared to be just 24 hours ago, a moment of great drama was imminent.
Mike Pepper took the ball. Al Wood cut behind a pick, came open and caught the pass. As the Terrapins dove for him, he easily passed to Jimmy Black, who ran right off the court as the clock hit zero.
No one ever touched Wood. No one ever touched Black. No one got close enough, and the final was 61-60 as Maryland lost the ACC final for the fifth time in Driesell's 12 years as coach, by one point for the second straight year.
"I guess the good Lord just don't mean for me to win this thing," Driesell said. "I wish I knew why. I'm going to have to ask him."
Certainly Driesell could not have asked much more from his players last night. They shot 57 percent from the field for the game, led by Ernest Graham's 12 of 17 for 27 points. But, with the game and the dream on the line, the Terps turned the ball over four straight times.
"And that," said Driesell, "is the reason they're out there on the court celebrating right now."
Buck Williams had tied the score at 54 with a vicious dunk with 6:55 to play. Sam Perkins, chosen the tournament's most valuable player after scoring 13 points and geting three rebounds last night, made a rare mistake, traveling with the ball in the lane.
The terps came down with a chance to go ahead. Dutch Morley dribbled across the time line, hawked by Black, who played 35 excellent minutes after leaving the Carolina dressing room on crutches because of a sprained ankle Friday night.
Morley dribbled and dribbled. Black slapped at the ball. Five seconds, jump ball. "I got hit on the hand," Morley said. "That definitely should have been a foul."
It wasn't, and Perkins leaped over everyone to grab the ball as Black and Morley both tapped it. Now, with less than six minutes left, Carolina spread out. The terps chased passively. The clock ran to 3:27 before Charles Pittman was called for a nonshooting foul on James Worthy.
The Tar Heels threw the ball inbounds. Worthy (19 points, eight rebounds) made his mistake for the evening, bobbling the ball out of bounds. Again the Terps had a chance to lead.
Again, Black messed things up for them. This time he stepped between Williams and Morley as the center tried to throw a short bounce pass to the guard and stole the ball cleanly. Morley dove at his as he went in for the layup, to no avail, and Carolina led, 56-54, with 2:55 to play.
"He just made a good play, stepped between us," Morley said. "I don't think we gave it away. But maybe we did."
The Terps came down again. The Tar Heels, as was the case almost the entire second half, packed their zone deep, daring an outside shot. Morley tried to get the ball inside. Black's hand came out, deflecting the ball to Al Wood.
Down came the Tar Heels again. Mike Pepper took what was probably an ill-advised shot. But Wood, who finished with 14 points after a miserable first half, jumped over everyone and tapped the ball in for a 58-54 lead with two minutes left.
The Terps set up again. The ball went to Albert King, who scored just two of his 10 points in the second half. King went up first to shoot, then to pass. He did neither. Traveling.
"I started to make a fake when they came out toward me," King said. "But I faked too hard and left my feet."
The turnover came with 1:32 left. Seven seconds later Worthy was fouled going to the basket as Smith ignored his famed delay ofense in the final minutes. Worthy made one of two, and it was 59-54.
Williams was fouled on a drive and made both free throws to cut it to 59-56 with 1:14 left. Those were the first points for the Terps in 5 minutes 41 seconds.
Then came the key play. After Carolina got the ball inbounds, Perkins threw a terrible pass, into Graham's hands. Graham fed Greg Manning (seven points) and Manning drove the baseline for a flying layup. But Wood came from nowhere and cleanly blocked the shot. Pepper ran the ball down in the corner and called time with 59 seconds left.
"He just made a great play," Manning said. "I didn't shoot any different than I normally do.
Losing this one hurts just as much as last year's final," Manning said. "We had the chance again and didn't get it done."
Having survived one mistake in the back court, Carolina made sure not to make another. This time the Heels got the ball up the court and the clock ran to 32 seconds before Black fed Wood perfectly for a dunk, making it 61-56 with 32 seconds left.
Graham made a layup with 22 seconds remaining to cut it to 61-58. Carolina broke the press again but Pepper, for some reason, went to the basket and was called for a charge with 14 seconds left. After a timeout King missed a jump shot, but Graham followed to make it 61-60 with four seconds on the clock.
Driesell called his last timeout. "All we wanted to do was get it in to Wood or Black because they're our best foul shooters," said Carolina Coach Dean Smith, who won his eighth ACC tournament. "We expected them to foul right away but they didn't get a chance."
That chance gone, the Terps (20-9) left the court beaten. A year ago they all cried in the locker room after their 73-72 loss to Duke in the final. This time there wasn't a wet eye in the house.
"It's disappointing to lose," King said. "But I'd rather go the final four than win this one."
All the players repeated the line except Graham, who disappeared after a television interview, missing a team meeting. "I don't know where he went," Driesell said. "He knew there was a meeting."
Of the meeting, he said: "I just told them instead of celebrating to keep their poise and not get caught up in this because Thursday (the NCAA first round) matters a lot more. It'll be for all the marbles then."
This one wasn't for those marbles but it was for one that keeps eluding Driesell. The Terps have lost the last four finals they have played in by a total of seven points.
He shook his head, thinking back to the final seconds. "We had a chance," he said, his usually strident voice soft. "one great play and we're champions Just one play . . ."
His voice trailed off. There was nothing left to say.