The days leading up to Christmas were not the happiest of Jeff Adkins' basketball career.
After three years as a Maryland starter, he had been benched, not only removed from the starting lineup but reduced to the fourth guard in Coach Lefty Driesell's rotation.
"It's been very frustrating," Adkins said. "It's impossible to get used to just sitting and watching."
Christmas night, Adkins was sitting and watching as Maryland and Iowa played into overtime in the opening game of the Rainbow Classic. Then, Speedy Jones fouled out in the first minute of overtime.
Driesell looked down the bench, saw Adkins and signaled for him. As if straight out of a Christmas fable, Adkins came in and hit a 12-foot follow shot at the buzzer to give the Terrapins a 70-68 overtime victory over Iowa and Driesell's former assistant, George Raveling.
Adkins' shot, which came after he rebounded a front-rim miss by Len Bias, did several things. It gave the Terrapins a 9-1 record and a nine-game winning streak. It put them into Thursday's semifinals against host Hawaii, a 66-58 victor over Cornell. It dropped Iowa to 9-2 and it probably put Maryland into the final of this tournament because Hawaii is a mediocre team and the half-empty Blaisdell Center Arena is hardly a home court advantage.
For Driesell, who turned 53 on Christmas, that was all well and good. For the Terrapins, it was lovely, another close victory against a good team after blowing another big (14-point) lead. For Bias (24 points), Adrian Branch (21 points, including the basket that put the game into overtime) and Derrick Lewis (nine rebounds) it was another good night's work.
But this was Adkins' night.
The season began poorly for Adkins and got worse. In the opening game of the Great Alaska Shootout, Adkins and Jones got mixed up on an inbounds pass in the final minute, creating the turnover that led to Kansas' winning basket. After that basket, with four seconds left, Adkins tried Maryland's final shot, a 28-footer that bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
"I must have seen that shot in my head a million times," Adkins said. "It was a long one, but I had the chance. I made a lot of winning shots in high school (Martinsville, Va.), like five my sophomore year and the shot that won the state (tournament) my junior year. But nothing in college. That's why missing the shot in Alaska hurt. I was beginning to think I might never make one like that again."
Driesell benched Adkins for one game in Alaska, brought him back to the starting lineup for two games, then benched him again after Maryland's victory over West Virginia, when Jones came on in the final minutes to play well with the game on the line. "We needed more rebounding and Speedy gave us that," Driesell said. "Plus, Jeff wasn't playing with any confidence. I thought playing with the second team for a while might help him."
It didn't. At Alabama, Adkins came in midway through the first half, put up an air ball, got yanked and didn't play the rest of the night. Driesell insisted after the game that Adkins, "isn't in the dog house. He's just not playing well right now. He's been demoted. If he wants to play, he's going to have to earn it."
Adkins never sulked, but his teammates knew he was suffering. "He never really sat down and talked about how he felt but you knew it was bothering him," said Chuck Driesell, Adkins' closest friend on the team for four years. "I mean, if you start 91 games and then you aren't playing at all, that's got to be tough."
Adkins had played briefly during the first half Tuesday, making one basket on a fast-break layup. The Terrapins, who had led, 35-21 with 4:57 left in the first half, went without a field goal for the rest of the period and led 36-33 at halftime.
With 6-foot-11 Greg Stokes scoring in every way imagineable (29 points), the Hawkeyes led by four points several times.
Stokes put Iowa ahead, 64-62, with 1:35 left on an 18-footer. Branch missed with 1:08 left and Iowa spread out. With six seconds left on the 45-second clock, Maryland fouled Iowa's Andre Banks. The idea to foul Banks was assistant coach Ron Bradley's.
"He's a terrible shooter and he hadn't shot the ball all night," Bradley reasoned. "It was a gamble."
The gamble worked. Banks missed the foul shot with 29 seconds left and Branch's 10-footer rolled around the rim and in to tie it at 64-64 with four seconds to go.
Then came overtime. "When Speedy fouled out I felt like he had to go to me," Adkins said. "I was nervous about it because you come in then and make a mistake, that's the game, you can be the goat."
Instead, he was the hero. First, he blocked Iowa guard Jeff Moe's shot with 35 seconds left to get the Terrapins the ball. Then, after Driesell didn't call time out as he usually does, came the heroics.
"I didn't want to take the shot so I got it to Lenny," Adkins said. "When he shot I could see it was going to be way short so I went to the foul line. The ball came off so hard that it hit the Iowa guy's hands (Todd Berkenpas) and came right to me.
"I just grabbed it and shot. I didn't even know it counted until everyone started tackling me."
As he walked into the locker room still flushed with the joy of sudden victory, Adkins' teammates congratulated him again.
"This is my last time around," he said. "I know basketball isn't everything, but after the last month this sure feels great."