In the end, one basket separated Maryland from the most satisfying December of Lefty Driesell's coaching career.
That one missed jump shot, a 22-footer at the buzzer by Adrian Branch, left all the Terrapins feeling a bit sour as their sojurn here came to a close. Branch's miss, which hit the back rim and bounced away, gave 10th-ranked Georgia Tech a 70-69 victory Friday night in the championship game of the 21st annual Rainbow Classic.
It also put the Yellow Jackets (9-1) exactly where Coach Bobby Cremins says he doesn't want to be: smack in the middle of the national spotlight. Tech has beaten North Carolina State on the road in Atlantic Coast Conference play and defeated Arkansas, Washington and Maryland on consecutive nights here to firmly establish itself as a favorite in the league and a big-time team.
"All it means is that maybe we're getting better," said Cremins, whose best player, point guard Mark Price, made the winning basket, driving the left side for a twisting, right-handed layup with three seconds left.
"You should never get beat by a guy taking the ball to the hole," Driesell said. "Price made a great play. I don't know what happened to us."
For Maryland (10-2), the loss was bitter not only because it was so close, but because it came against a team that has been its nemesis the last four years. Since Cremins became coach, Tech is 6-2 against the Terrapins.
"Four years ago, you could say it was a jinx or they had our number or something like that," said Branch, who scored 27 points. "But now they're a legitimate team. There's no shame in losing to them."
Neither team shot well (Tech 46 percent, Maryland 43) and their stars had off nights: Price, voted the outstanding player in the tournament, shot four for nine from the field and had 14 points. Len Bias was even worse, shooting three for 12 and getting just 12 points, almost seven below his average.
"I don't know what was wrong with Len. He was off the whole tournament," Driesell said. "Obviously, he has to play better than he did tonight for us to win."
As a result of the coolness of Price and Bias, this was a game for lesser lights to shine. For Maryland, Speedy Jones was five for eight and had 12 points. Backup center Terry Long, playing by far his best game of the season, had 10 points and six rebounds.
For the Yellow Jackets, burly center Yvon Joseph had 18 points and eight rebounds, and John Salley had 11 points and 14 rebounds as his team outrebounded the Terrapins, 37-30. Bruce Dalrymple, who is only a half-step behind Price in clutch play, had 16 points.
Price and Dalrymple were the difference down the stretch. Branch had been a one-man show for the Terrapins in the second half, bringing them back from a 48-39 deficit with 13:25 left to lead, 62-61, when he hit an 18-footer with 3:40 to go.
"We played good defense tonight, that's what kept us in," said Branch, who was named to the all-tournament team. "But our offense stunk."
Nevertheless, Branch got Maryland into position to win. The lead seesawed into the final minute. Bias, fouled on a breakaway, made one of two foul shots to make it 67-66, Terrapins, with 1:21 left. Dalrymple hit a 17-footer with 1:02 left before Branch hit a short base line shot with 40 seconds to go to make it 69-68, setting up the finish.
"We figured they would run something for Price," said Keith Gatlin. "But I thought he would shoot a jump shot, not drive."
Tech ran the same play it ran when it beat State at the buzzer on a jump shot by Price. The key is for Price to give the ball up, get it back and then create something. This time, Price got the ball left of the key, head-faked Gatlin, got a pick from Duane Ferrell and went to the basket.
"I layed off him at first but he made that fake like he was going to shoot and he went by me," Gatlin said. "He made a great play."
With Ferrell sealing most of the lane off, only Long could get to Price as he went inside. "I saw him coming and I thought he was going to block the shot," Price said. "Instead of just shooting with my left hand, I went to my right and tried to keep him away from the ball."
The ball spun through with three seconds left and the Terrapins called time. As always, Driesell ordered his team to throw the ball to midcourt -- Gatlin to Bias -- and call time. From there, after another Maryland timeout and one by Tech -- the last play unfolded.
"We have a couple of options off the inbounds," Driesell said. "Teams tend to cover Adrian on the play so tonight it went to Bias."
Jeff Adkins, inbounding the ball, had the option of throwing to Branch (dropping back from the key), or to Bias (posted at the foul line). He went to Bias.
But Scott Petway, who had lost his man (Gatlin), jumped in front of Bias and deflected the pass. The ball went right to Branch, whose shot was too hard. As Branch jumped up and down in disgust, Tech celebrated.
Nevertheless, as the Terrapins fly home Sunday to get ready to open ACC play Wednesday against N.C. State, Driesell has several positives to ponder:
His team lost by one point to a top 10 team on a night when Bias played poorly. Also, Jones has improved steadily all month, as has Derrick Lewis, who will have to play center at 6-foot-7.
How did Driesell feel about the month, which included victories over Tennessee, West Virginia, Alabama, Ohio State and Iowa? "I don't know," he grumbled. "Ask me after we play State. I don't like to look back anyway, I like to look ahead."
Looking ahead, one firm conclusion can be reached: the next two months are going to be a lot like Friday night was: 40 minutes of intensity, with the final play likely to decide the game.