Maryland defensive end J.D. Gross sat at his locker for at least an hour, explaining to everyone who asked how a defensive call named "Kill Man" beat North Carolina yesterday.

With 22 seconds left and 51,200 standing in Byrd Stadium--the Atlantic Coast Conference title, the national rankings and major bowl bids on the line--an audible defensive call sent Gross on a blitz that hurried Tar Heel quarterback Scott Stankavage into an incompletion when a two-point conversion catch by Tyrone Anthony would have tied the score.

"Kill Man" let Maryland live yesterday; the No. 13 Terrapins beat third-ranked North Carolina, 28-26, and the goal posts never stood a chance. The upright in the west end zone was uprooted just after the two-point failure, even though Maryland had to receive a kickoff.

Originally, it seemed the celebration was very premature. It almost proved costly because officials penalized Maryland 15 yards on the kickoff because the crowd was on the field.

Carolina kicker Bob Rogers made an onside kick and recovered the ball himself at the Maryland 36. The officials ruled he fell on the ball one yard short of the required 10 yards, then they called Carolina for being offside on the kickoff. Maryland declined the penalty and kept the ball, and the Tar Heels did not complain afterward.

Maryland ran one more play--quarterback Boomer Esiason fell on the ball--and the Terrapins could celebrate in earnest. The east goal post went then, and the field was a red-and-white blur of fans and pompons.

As long as these two teams play against each other, Carolina's two-point pass attempt will be discussed, dissected and relived. The Tar Heels (7-1, 3-1 in the ACC) got the ball, trailing, 28-20, needing to move 90 yards against the wind for a score.

"I figured it would be three plays, our game, start the celebration," said Maryland place-kicker Jess Atkinson.

It was one of the few times Atkinson has been wrong this season. Stankavage completed five passes during the drive and scrambled through a Maryland blitz to the one-yard line on third down. The Tar Heels called their final timeout with 24 seconds left to set up the play that would send Anthony over the top of a pile for a touchdown.

Now for the real strategy. Eric Wilson, Maryland's senior linebacker, recognized the Tar Heels would try to pass for the two-point conversion and called an audible: "Kill Man." That means the ends, Gross and Brian Baker, would stunt and do anything they could to pressure Stankavage, who had already completed 19 of 35 passes for 211 yards.

Safety Joe Kraus, who was responsible for Anthony, was picked off by a blocker in the end zone. And Anthony was wide open. But because Gross got in unblocked, and so quickly, Anthony said Stankavage's pass just slid off his fingers.

"Scott had time," North Carolina Coach Dick Crum said. "He just didn't get him the ball."

Stankavage, looking devastated, said, "I just didn't deliver the ball. I feel bad. I missed it."

But the play was more intricate than Stankavage missing his receiver. Maryland Coach Bobby Ross, after the biggest victory of his career set his record in October at 10-0, said the coaching staff had discussed two defenses for the two-point conversion and decided on "Kill Man."

Gross, one of 21 seniors playing for the last time at home, said he thought he could sack Stankavage. Gross has played well the last two years, but never had been a primary hero as he was yesterday. "People thought it was a fluke when we beat them last year," Gross said. "Twice? They have to respect us."

The Maryland victory was actually a result of two two-point plays.

Trailing, 17-10, at halftime, Esiason threw an eight-yard screen pass to Rick Badanjek, who followed a block by guard Shawn Benson into the end zone four minutes into the third quarter. Esiason, who holds for Atkinson's point-after kicks, took the snap, jumped up and threw to tight end Chris Knight, which gave Maryland an 18-17 lead instead of a tie.

Had the game ended in a tie and both teams gone on to win their remaining conference games, North Carolina would have won the ACC title because it plays six league games this season and Maryland five. Now, Maryland can win its first ACC title since 1976 by beating N.C. State in Raleigh Nov. 19. (The Terrapins play next at No. 4 Auburn.)

Maryland improved to 7-1 overall, 4-0 in the ACC.

Beyond Gross, it was difficult to single out another Terrapin hero. Certainly, Willie Joyner, with his 99 yards rushing and his seven-yard touchdown run that gave Maryland a 7-0 lead, deserves consideration. So does Atkinson, who kicked field goals of 29 and 19 yards--he now has kicked nine straight--and recovered a fumble that led to the Esiason to Sean Sullivan 30-yard touchdown pass that put Maryland ahead, 28-17, late in the third quarter.

Esiason said neither he nor Sullivan could be considered heroes since their touchdown pass was a broken play. "I wound up throwing to where I thought he would be," Esiason said. Esiason's 137 yards passing (10 of 20) was the second lowest mark of his career. But he threw two touchdown passes, no interceptions and was not sacked.

Again, the Maryland defense played well. Carolina, which came into the game averaging 303 yards per game rushing, ran for 191 yesterday. Maryland rushed for 183 yards, much of it coming right at all-America William Fuller.

Maryland also countered the Tar Heels' excellent linebacker pursuit by running three reverse plays and one fake, the least successful of which went four yards, and the best of which (Greg Hill's 13-yarder) set up Maryland's go-ahead touchdown.

In the madness that was the Maryland locker room, senior defensive end Baker sat very quietly.

"I'm totally exhausted, just drained," he said. "We've had these type of games before, against highly ranked opponents in front of big crowds and lost. I would say we won because we gave it our all. But we gave our all in those other games and we lost. So I don't want to analyze, I think I'll just sit back and love it."