Seven games into the basketball season, Maryland is in a rut. And the Terrapins are loving every minute of it.
Each night, the script is the same. Maryland builds a lead, blows the lead, then thrills the onlookers with an escape act at the finish. Last night, the Terrapins built a 10-point lead against Ohio State and sent 13,570 in Cole Field House into hysterics.
Then they blew the lead -- the sixth time in seven games this season they have pulled this routine -- before finally pulling out a scintillating 76-73 victory over the Buckeyes, thanks to last-minute heroics by Keith Gatlin, Len Bias and Derrick Lewis.
"Every game we get the lead, get passive, then realize that we can lose and get it together," said Bias, who had 22 points in yet another superb performance. "We've got to learn to keep aggressive the whole game."
As is becoming customary, it was Bias, Adrian Branch (19 points) and Lewis (13 rebounds) who did most of the lead building.
Bias and Branch provided the offense while Lewis keyed a 40-29 rebounding advantage, the first time the Terrapins have outrebounded an opponent this season.
But at the finish, it was Gatlin (10 points) who broke a 73-73 tie with a 15-foot base line jumper with 1:10 to go. Then it was Gatlin who drew a charge from the Buckeyes' Troy Taylor, the high scorer in the game with 23 points. Then, after Lewis missed two foul shots with 15 seconds left, it was Gatlin stopping Taylor as he drove the lane with eight seconds to go, forcing him into an off-balance jump shot that never had a chance.
"Same thing every night," Gatlin said. "We certainly make it interesting. Taylor gave me fits all night. I'm glad I was able to stop him the last two times. Enough was enough."
Actually, Maryland (6-1) was only partially responsible for letting a 65-55 advantage with 8:51 left become a 71-71 tie with 3:50 to play. Ohio State (3-1) sizzled for five minutes, most notably Taylor and 7-foot center Brad Sellers (18 points, 13 rebounds), who kept making brilliant moves to score every time the defense seemed to have them stopped.
"We just have to learn to play with the lead," said Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, who finally beat a Big Ten team after four straight losses. "Tonight, they really came after us when they got behind. They were hungry and fighting and clawing and we started playing scared. I could see it on the sidelines."
From any vantage point, this was a game to be savored. Both teams came out bombing from the start, the Buckeyes grabbing a quick 10-4 lead by scoring on their first five possessions before the Terrapins, led by two vicious Bias dunks and some good one-on-one offense by Branch, came back to take the lead, 31-29, with 4:10 left in the half.
It was 40-38 at half after the Terrapins, leading by four with the ball, played a loose final minute, taking a bad shot (Jeff Baxter) then committing a silly foul (Gatlin) to let the Buckeyes get closer.
"We let down and made a couple of bad mistakes the last minute," Driesell said. "I thought we might take control at halftime but we didn't because of that."
Neverthless, they seemed to have control in the second half. Ohio State Coach Eldon Miller switched from man-to-man to zone at halftime. It seemed to make sense because of Maryland's back court height advantage but the Terrapins are a very good zone offense team and they quickly exploited the defense.
A jump shot by Branch, a bomb by Baxter and a coast-to-coast number by Branch ending with a vigorous slam, gave the Terrapins a 65-55 lead with 8:51 left. Miller called time and the Buckeyes came out of the huddle snarling.
"We beat them every way you can beat a team except on the boards," Miller said. "If you give a team 20 points on the boards you aren't going to win a basketball game."
The Buckeyes almost won this game, anyway. After Miller's timeout, Taylor quickly produced two buckets, a jump shot from just inbounds and another off a steal from Branch. Driesell tried a timeout. It didn't work.
Even though a tip-in by Jeff Adkins, who played only three minutes, built the lead to 67-59, the Buckeyes kept coming. They got three-point plays from Sellers on a great spinning move in the lane and from Taylor. That cut the lead to 71-67. Sellers then tipped in Ron Stokes' miss and after Branch's miss, Dave Jones tied the score with a bomb.
"The bottom line is we still won," Branch said. "Fortunately, in that situation we have Len, who can score, Keith who can score and me. I'm not afraid to shoot, either."
But Branch missed a lean-in jumper and Taylor's two foul shots made it 73-71 with 2:18 to go. Those were the Buckeyes' last points. Gatlin tied it with two free throws. Seller missed from the base line, then Gatlin hit his base line jumper to set up the frantic final minute.
After Taylor missed the last shot, Bias got the rebound. He missed a foul shot, but it didn't matter. "I work like hell to get the rebound, then I forget to make the foul shot," he said, laughing. "I'm glad it didn't matter."
It's that way at Maryland these days. Mistakes are corrected or don't matter. The Terrapins should reach the top 20 by this time next week. It's not a bad rut to be in.