This being Ralph Sampson's last home game, Maryland was supposed to serve as just a prop, the straight man for what would be his glorious adieu to the folk in University Hall.
Sampson had his day, saving what could have been a disastrous ending by making a jumper with four seconds left to give No. 2 Virginia an 83-81 victory.
But Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell was no straight man. He didn't give a darn that this was Sampson's final home game. With three players having fouled out, including center Ben Coleman, Driesell put his patchwork lineup on the floor and pushed Virginia to the limit, taunting the mighty Cavaliers all the while.
The Terrapins took an 81-80 lead with 1:08 left on Steve Rivers' back-door layup on a pass from Jeff Adkins, and held the same margin when Sampson went to the free thow line with seven seconds left.
Sampson missed the first free throw, and U-Hall grew uncommonly quiet. Sampson missed the second shot, too. But he missed it so badly the ball banged off the rim and bounced to teammate Craig Robinson, who wasn't in position to control the rebound, but was able to tip it back.
Sampson caught it and made a jumper from within the lane for an 82-81 Cavalier lead. The basket gave him 23 points, but it was only his eighth basket in 15 shots.
After Rivers and Adrian Branch collided on the inbounds play, causing Branch to travel, Virginia's Othell Wilson made a free throw. Branch followed with a desperation, 25-foot push shot that hit the backboard.
Branch had missed the front end in a one-and-one situation that could have all but clinched the game with 33 seconds left. He could hardly be faulted this day, though, having made seven of 12 three-point attempts and scoring a game-high 28 points.
The victory enabled Virginia (25-3, 12-2) to tie North Carolina for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, although the Tar Heels will be seeded No. 1 in the tournament this week. Maryland (19-8, 8-6) ended the regular season tied with North Carolina State, but will be the No. 3 seed because the Terrapins beat State twice.
There were many reasons Maryland never should have been close. Herman Veal, the team's second-leading rebounder and its toughest defender, was held out for an undisclosed reason. Driesell said angrily, "It was definitely not my decision. All I can say is it's an 'administrative problem' and I've been told not to comment." The team doesn't know if or when Veal will be back.
Contacted late last night, Driesell said he wanted to talk about it, but reiterated he had been told not to comment further. "But it will come out," he said. "It'll be a whole column, a whole page." Driesell said he didn't know if Veal would return.
Then there were the fouls--25 against Maryland to 16 against Virginia. Coleman, the league's second-most dominant center, was called for four fouls in the first half, then fouled out with 10:28 left after recording only eight points and two rebounds. He was averaging 16 points and nine rebounds.
Mark Fothergill fouled out, as did reserve forward Ed Farmer, who got the Terrapins going when they were down by 11 points.
By the time Robinson tipped Sampson's missed free throw, Maryland had 6-foot-8 freshman forward Len Bias at center and four guards in its lineup.
"I knew I had to get every single rebound. I had to approach it that way," Bias said.
Driesell was proud and fuming, simultaneously.
"If we aren't in the top 10 this week, the polls stink," he said. "I haven't bragged on this team much this year. But look at the score Virginia beat Louisville by in here (98-81). Right now, we're one of the best teams in the country. And if they don't invite us to the NCAA tournament, then I'll quit coaching. I've been looking for a reason to quit, anyway."
Quitting was the farthest thing from Driesell's mind today. He played down the Sampson's-last-game angle, saying, "What have I got to do with Ralph Sampson? I wish I'd never seen him, anyway."
But look at Driesell's actions, not his words. In the opening minutes, the Virginia students began screaming, "Sit down Lefty." Driesell shook his head, mouthed the word 'No,' and continued standing.
Driesell motioned the choke sign to Ricky Stokes at the free throw line. He walked toward Sampson and laughed when Sampson missed a free throw that allowed Maryland to pull within 80-79 on Rivers' three-pointer.
"He was as intense as I've ever seen him," said Fothergill.
The Terrapins were down by 11 points twice in the first half, the last time at 30-19. The fans were screaming, "NIT . . . NIT."
But Farmer, playing despite a deep gash under his eye from an elbow by Robinson, scored six quick points to make it a game from then on.
"But it ended exactly as it should have," said Virginia's Kenton Edelin. "Ralph had to have it today. It did him justice."