The first of December in Cole Field House felt more like the first of March. The heat was turned up, a sellout crowd packed the aisles and walkways and the basketball was intense, if not terribly pretty.
And Maryland survived a scare and ran its record to 3-1 with a 56-47 victory last night over West Virginia before 14,500 sweating fans.
Despite letting an 11-point lead escape for the third time this season, the Terrapins won with a 7-0 rush down the stretch after the Mountaineers (1-1) had caught up at 43-43 with less than six minutes to play. Two jumpers by Keith Gatlin, a free throw by Adrian Branch and a short base line shot by Speedy Jones gave the Terrapins 50-43 lead with two minutes left and they held on.
"The rebounding is still a problem. I think that's why we're blowing leads," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said. "The important thing, though, is we kept it together and won when we could have lost."
West Virginia outrebounded the Terrapins, 39-25. The Mountaineers thereby kept the game close in spite of 39 percent shooting against Maryland's ever-changing defenses. But in the end, with the game on the line, even with forward Len Bias (15 points) bothered by a stomachache, it was Maryland that made the key plays.
"It was kind of frustrating," said Gatlin (14 points), "because we did everything you have to do to win except rebound. We let them keep the game close by not rebounding."
Gatlin made two key shots in the stretch to keep West Virginia from any serious ideas of an upset.
Maryland had led, 27-19, at the half, thanks to an 8-0 drive in the last four minutes keyed by Derrick Lewis' three blocked shots. The lead grew to 30-19 in the opening minute of the second half on a gorgeous Gatlin-to Bias-alley-oop for a three-point play.
Then, the Mountaineers, most notably Vernon Odom (16 points) came back. Odom hit three jumpers during an eight-point rally that cut the lead to 32-29. A layup by Renardo Brown with 10:40 to go cut the lead to 39-37.
The Terrapins built the margin to 43-37 in the next minute with some help from the officials. First, they missed Jeff Baxter's out-of- bounds dribble just before he fed Bias for a layup. Then, when Holman Harley stole a pass by Branch, he collided with one of the officials and Jeff Adkins picked up the loose ball. Branch's two foul shots made it 43-37 with 9:45 left.
"I thought then we had it under control," said Branch, the game's leading scorer with 17 points. "But they were scrappy. They were very physical underneath and kept beating us to the boards. That's how they got back."
They got back to 43-43 when Odom scored from 22 feet with 5:52 on the clock. By now the big crowd, which had rocked the building all evening, was growing a little nervous. The Mountaineers thought they had the Terrapins right where they wanted them.
"We knew coming in we had to outrebound them to win," said guard Dale Blaney. "We did that and we should have won. When we tied it, I thought we were going to win."
They didn't because the Terrapins, who are apparently going to be a perimeter team this season, kept cool and got good shots against the West Virginia zone.
First it was Gatlin, hitting from the top of the key with 4:17 left for a 45-43 lead. Then, after Odom missed, Branch made one of two free throws. Lester Rowe, held to nine points, missed at the other end and Gatlin penetrated and made a soft jumper in the lane for a 48-43 lead. Forty seconds later, Jones was good from the base line and it was 50-43 with 2:05 to go.
"We didn't want to rush anything after they tied it up," Gatlin said. "The ideal thing would have been to get it to our horses, Adrian and Len. But when they sagged, I had the shot. I felt comfortable taking it."
A good thing he did, because the Terrapins probably weren't going to get the rebound.
"That's not very good," Driesell said, looking at the rebounding statistics. "We're not a very big team, so we're going to have to box out and do the fundamental things to get the rebounds. Our center position has to get more rebounds than tonight (Lewis two in 30 minutes, Terry Long zero in 10). Fortunately, we're playing good defense."
Indeed. Driesell, with some suggestions from Branch, switched defenses constantly and it seemed to keep West Virginia off balance. He also used nine players, putting his son Chuck Driesell in very early (11:47 to go in the first half) largely to stop Blaney, who had been penetrating consistently.
"I told the guys that West Virginia would come in here fired up 'cause we beat them so bad (102-77) last year," Driesell said. "They made us play a slow tempo and made it a tough night for us."
A tough, hot night, but when it was over, a good night. "We sold the place out, didn't we?" Driesell said happily. "I didn't expect that."