North Carolina did it again.
The Tar Heels should have lost to Maryland tonight. Even their coach, Dean Smith, said so. Maryland had a three-point lead with 23 seconds left. It had the game in hand with good foul shooters twice going to the line to secure the victory.
Final score: Carolina 75, Maryland 74. The winning basket was an unlikely 16-foot, top-of-the-key jumper by sophomore forward Dave Popson with seven seconds left, a shot that came after Keith Gatlin and Adrian Branch had missed one-and-one foul opportunities for Maryland.
Even after Popson's shot, Maryland still had a chance with five seconds left. But Gatlin, trying to get the inbounds pass to Jeff Adkins, was intercepted by Curtis Hunter. He was fouled and made two free throws with four seconds to go to clinch the victory.
"Three times in here the last four years we should have won, and we lost every one," said Adkins. "No way this could happen tonight. It's amazing. I just don't understand it. Every single time it happens."
It happened tonight after Maryland (11-4, 1-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) had done about everything it needed to do to beat fifth-ranked Carolina (11-1, 2-1).
Maryland got great games from Len Bias (23 points) and Branch (21). It played solid inside defense most of the night and never let UNC point guard Kenny Smith get the transition game going. It kept the crowd of 10,000 in Carmichael Auditorium out of the game most of the way.
"Maryland deserved to win," Smith said simply. "We squeezed one out tonight, and I mean squeezed."
"We played great and kept our poise almost the whole night," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said. "At the end, we missed the foul shots and that was the game. This ain't the NCAA finals or nothing. We'll be back."
What this was, though, was Driesell's last appearance in this building (it closes next season) and a game he desperately wanted, having won only twice in 15 previous attempts. And, as has happened before, the Terrapins had every chance to win.
They led by seven points in the first half, thanks mainly to Bias, who was superb the first 20 minutes. He made eight of 10 shots, including three dunks.
Carolina came back to lead by 39-38 at the half, and the game seesawed into the final two minutes, momentum swinging on almost every possession. A wild finish seemed inevitable.
The hysteria -- and the weirdness -- began after Steve Hale made two foul shots to put North Carolina ahead, 69-68, with 1:58 left. The Tar Heels tried to trap Gatlin at midcourt. Gatlin avoided the trap and found Bias open for a layup with a baseball pass. That made it 70-69. Bias, fouled, missed from the line and North Carolina's Brad Daugherty (14 points, 10 rebounds) fouled out trying to beat Derrick Lewis to the ball.
Lewis missed the foul shot. Carolina went to Warren Martin underneath and he was fouled. He missed twice, and Maryland rebounded. Gatlin missed a drive at the other end, then Hale was fouled with 41 seconds left.
Hale is a 91 percent foul shooter. He had made 20 in a row. He missed. "That stuff gets contagious," UNC's Buzz Peterson said. "Everyone was missing from the line tonight."
In fact, Maryland, a 71-percent foul-shooting team, was four of 12 in the second half. Carolina, shooting 76 percent, was 11 of 20 for the game.
Gatlin rebounded Hale's miss and was fouled immediately. He made both shots and with 36 seconds left, the Terrapins led, 72-69. When Popson missed a short jumper and Gatlin got the rebound with 25 seconds left, it appeared Maryland would win.
Not in this building. With 23 seconds left, Gatlin was fouled. This time, he missed. North Carolina raced downcourt, and Smith made a 12-footer and called time almost in the same motion.
Now it was Maryland, 72-71, with 16 seconds to go. "You have to make your foul shots in those situations," Bias said. "When they fouled Adrian, I said, 'Good.' It never occurred to me that he would miss."
Branch was fouled on the inbounds pass. Slowly, he walked to the line. "I wanted everything simple," he said. "Just relax and shoot with my regular motion. Nine times out of 10, I make the shot."
He missed. The rebound came off hard to the left corner and Popson ran it down. He fed to Peterson, who went down the right sideline. He was double-teamed and almost lost the ball in the corner.
"I was in trouble for a minute," he said. "I wanted to drive but they cut me off and I almost lost it. Then, I was going to put it up and hope a big man was there if I missed because the clock was running down. But I looked up and saw Dave open at the key."
Popson had run to the top of the key and stopped. He caught the pass and, as he went up, Lewis came flying at him. "I saw him coming with those long arms of his and I arched it," Popson said. "It's not the kind of shot I'd want to be on but it was a good spot for me. It had been open all night."
The shot just cleared Lewis's lunge -- "I thought I had it for a second but, when I didn't get it, I still didn't think it was a very good shot for them," Lewis said -- and was good with seven seconds left. The clock ran to five seconds as Maryland called time.
North Carolina knew in such a situation, the Terrapins like to throw a pass to midcourt and call time. When the Terrapins lined up, Smith checked to make sure they were set up as they usually do, then called time himself.
"We knew what was coming," Hunter said. "We called time to make sure we knew what to do."
Smith put the 6-foot-10 Popson on Gatlin to obscure his vision. Driesell told Gatlin to call time if he had trouble getting the ball in. Adkins came around a pick at midcourt, but Hunter was between him and the ball. As a result, Adkins ran almost all the way from center court to the base line.
"Then I realized I had gone too far," Adkins said. "If I caught the ball that far from our basket, I'd either have to eat it or call time again. I started to yell to Keith to call time but it was too late, the (five-second) count was too far along."
Sensing trouble, Adkins tried to reverse and run back towards midcourt. Gatlin, his view partially blocked by Popson, never saw him change directions. "I was trying to run the base line and get it to Jeff," Gatlin said. "I don't know exactly what happened. I just threw it to the wrong guy."
He threw it to Hunter, who never moved as Adkins ran away from the ball. Hunter caught the ball on the hop and was fouled with four seconds left. Unlike everyone else, he made his free throws and it was 75-72. Bias's layup at the buzzer meant nothing.
And so, the Terrapins could only lament as they headed for their chartered plane home. As he left Carmichael for the last time, Driesell shook his head and said quietly, "This is a rough way to make a living."