A young Maryland basketball team took a big step toward growing up tonight.
The Terrapins (5-1) dissipated a seven-point second-half lead. They had a crowd of 11,572 in the Jefferson Coliseum screaming at them with the score 51-51 and less than four minutes to play. But rather than fold, Maryland made all the big shots down the stretch and came away with a 59-56 victory over Alabama on a night the Terrapins did everything well but putting the ball in the hoop.
"You get Maryland to shoot 36 percent and you ought to win the basketball game," said Alabama Coach Wimp Sanderson, whose team dropped to 3-1. "Every time we got close, they would go down and make a big shot."
Indeed. The term "team effort" is a cliche but it fit tonight. Len Bias was superb all the way, scoring 18 points, getting 10 rebounds and blocking three shots.
Derrick Lewis, with some help from his friends, excelled defensively, holding star center Bobby Lee Hurt to four points in 36 minutes. Hurt, allegedly an all-America, was Alabama's answer to the Invisible Man all night, his last act appropriately enough being a fumbled rebound on his team's last chance to tie the score.
"Derrick shut him down so well I didn't even know (Hurt) was in the game most of the time," Bias said. "He was almost unnoticeable."
But if Bias and Lewis were the key most of the night, Adrian Branch and Keith Gatlin came on to be the heroes at the end. Branch (18 points) rallied from a weak first half, two of 10 from the field, to make the shot that put the Terrapins on top for good. Then he made two foul shots and Gatlin made four in the last two minutes as Maryland was clinging to the lead.
"It could have gone either way there," Coach Lefty Driesell said. "But when we had to have it, all our guys played with a lot of poise."
The poise was needed. Maryland, with its best rebounding this season (11 offensive retrieves for the game), had led, 28-21, in the first half but a couple of foolish turnovers in the last minute allowed the Crimson Tide to close to 28-25 at intermission.
Then, the Alabama coaches gave Maryland a gift. Angrily, they went after officials Hank Nichols and Joe Forte, following them to the locker room. Forte rewarded assistant coach Benny Dees with a technical. When Sanderson asked Forte why he had assessed the technical, Forte said, "Because he cussed me."
Whatever the reason, the second half began with Bias making two free throws for a 30-25 lead instead of an Alabama possession with a chance to cut the lead to one.
"That really helped us a lot because we ended the first half on kind of a downer," Gatlin said.
That wasn't the only good thing that happened to Maryland at halftime. As the teams returned, Bias pulled Branch aside. "I just told him, 'A, we got to have you to win this game. You got to forget two for 10 and make some shots.' "
"He told me not to lose confidence," Branch said. "It was a good reminder."
And so, when Alabama's Darrell Neal, eight of 13 for 16 points, made a 20-footer to tie the score at 51 with 4:20 left, Branch wanted the ball.
"I knew if I got the ball in the right place I could get a good shot," he said. "We had to score on that possession."
With the crowd almost at ACC decibel level, Branch took the ball left of the foul line, drove into the lane, stopped and put up his soft, left-handed jumper. Good, for a 53-51 lead with 3:45 left.
When Neal finally missed at the other end, Driesell went to his double-post delay. But after running 1:40 off the clock, the Terrapins turned the ball over -- Branch called for five seconds -- and Alabama had one more opportunity to tie.
Mark Gottfried missed a jumper. Hurt had one final chance for redemption but the rebound slithered off his hands and Gatlin came out of the scramble with it. He was fouled going to the basket and made both shots for a 55-51 margin with 1:46 left.
"I like to have the ball in that situation," said Gatlin, who had 14 points and four assists.
After a three-point play by Buck Johnson (13 points) made it 55-54, Gatlin and Branch each had a chance in the final minute to get the lead back to three from the foul line. Each came through.
"The big shot was Adrian's," said Gatlin. "If we don't score there (at 51-51), they get to control the tempo and the crowd would have gone wild. It would have been like six-against-five."
Speedy Jones, who played well (six rebounds) in his first start despite shooting poorly, agreed. "It was so loud I couldn't even think," he said. "Adrian made the biggest shot of the night."
Branch had the last word. Asked about taking the key shot on a bad shooting night, he shrugged.
"I always say it's the end that counts," he said. "I wanted that shot, do or die, sink or swim."