Fortunately," Adrian Branch was saying, "I was able to get inside the second half, for pretty high-percentage shots."

Most definitely, they were pretty. But only one of America's superior soloists on a roll would call off-balance 12-footers with one defender draped around his back and another with a hand in his face high percentage. The odds on them going in were about as high as Maryland coming back against Tennessee-Chattanooga tonight.

Both happened.

The first half of this NCAA tournament opener Maryland was erratic and listless.

"Scared to death of the Southern Conference," said an aide, smiling now.

Scared to lose the second half.


Or bright enough to throw the ball to brash and brilliant Branch and hustle out of his way. There were lots of reasons for Maryland's comeback, among them the team doctor calling the final defensive strategy and some questionable moves by the cerebral Murray Arnold; the major one was Branch living up to every one of Coach Lefty Driesell's lavish preseason boasts.

Can't nobody stay with Adrian, the Left-hander bragged.

He was exactly right tonight.

With all that three-point stuff no longer a factor, the 6-foot-8 Branch no longer was forced to meander far from the basket. On the move in congestion, he may be as good as anyone on earth. The rest of the country might have been agog at one or two of his air dances.

Terrapin teammates sort of yawned.

"Does that all the time in practice," Jeff Adkins said.

Not quite.

The last of Branch's 17 second-half points makes any playground highlight film. Near the free throw line, he spun between Gerald Wilkins and Skip Clark 17 feet from the basket. Airborne, he brought the ball back toward his chest and then let fly. Degree of difficulty 12.4.

Novels could be written in the time the ball took to make up its mind whether to drop in or stay out. Momentum bobbled back and forth with each bounce. If it doesn't go in, with a few ticks more than a minute left, UTC has a three-point lead.

Front rim . . . back rim . . . it touched maybe 10 parts of orange iron in all.

Finally, it took a turtle tumble.

"When that went in," Adkins said, "I knew we were going to win."

When Branch was that hot, everybody in The Summit sensed some other Terrapin would get a wide-open shot to win the game in the final seconds. Arnold wasn't going to let that slip his mind.

Some other moves might have.

For instance, with a nine-point lead and nearly four minutes left, UTC still was attacking. When the situation seemed to scream for stall, Moccasins were hell-bent for the hoop. In truth, they got some very good shots. But missed. Twice.

The very good Willie White botched a tough layup and Clark missed an unmolested one a minute later. Branch kept moving Maryland closer.

When Maryland had to foul, there was the dreadful-shooting Clark still in the game to be hacked. A 50 percent free thrower, Clark also is the team's surest ball handler. But instead of working to keep him away from the ball the Moccasins handed it to him with 39 seconds left and moved aside.

Startled, Adkins lunged forward and smacked Clark.

He missed.

"Kind of like once in high school," Branch said of the Terrapin rally from 13 points at one stretch early in the second half. "I was a sophomore at De Matha, playing with Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg. We were down by 23 to St. John's at the half; we won by three in overtime."

The one-point Maryland victory in regulation came about because nearly everyone in the sparse opening-game crowd was inside Branch's jersey on an out-of-bounds play with six seconds left. With nobody to throw to, Len Bias threw the ball in the basket.

Simple game.

Not quite.

Arnold had one last maneuver. With two seconds left, about the only hope was to try and force a Terrapin into a foul on the in-bounds pay. The idea was for the Mocassin with the ball to dash toward the end line, and for a teammate to play wooden Indian nearby.

So whichever Terrapin was chasing the passer would be run into a pick.

The Mocassins had been awful from the foul line all game; still, that was better than a half-court heave.

Maryland's doctor, Stanford Lavine, guessed what would happen.

He told Herman Veal.

Veal told Bias to be careful.

"So I just stepped out of his way," hero Bias said of the UTC picker.

With that option foiled, a half-court pass followed. And the receiver, Stanley Lawrence, took too many steps before his desperation 30-foot fling sailed over the backboard anyway.