The basketball hung in midair, looking for a moment as if it were suspended from the ceiling, never to come down. Slowly, ever so slowly, it dropped toward the basket as if destined for the bottom of the net.
"If it had gone in," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said moments later, "I'd have fainted." Jeff Adkins was more succinct: "I would have died on the spot. Right there."
Driesell didn't faint and Adkins didn't die. But they got the scare of a lifetime when that final shot from 50 feet by Wake Forest's Lee Garber came up just short, hitting the front rim and bounding away to give 20th-ranked Maryland a breathless 64-62 victory over the Demon Deacons tonight.
For 38 minutes, even amidst the din of 8,100 fans packed into the creaky old Winston-Salem Coliseum, it did not look as if the Terrapins would need three free throws from Adkins in the final 10 seconds in order to raise their ACC-leading record to 5-2 and their overall mark to 19-6.
They had played almost perfect basketball in building what should have been a safe 61-49 lead over the Deacons (4-4 in the league, 13-7 overall) with only 120 seconds left to play. Len Bias had been his usual superb self with 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Adrian Branch had 14 points and Derrick Lewis had come up with nine points and eight rebounds.
Defensively, Maryland had packed itself into a tight zone, making life miserable for much of the night for Wake star Kenny Green, who managed 16 points and 11 rebounds, most of them late in the game. Only Delaney Rudd (26 points) had scored with any consistency for the Deacons.
And, most important, the Terrapins had kept 5-foot-3 Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues from driving them crazy. Even though Bogues had seven points and nine assists, he had only one steal as Driesell used Branch to bring the ball up court, instead of his point guards.
"I don't ever want the ball near Muggs," Driesell said. "I saw him play in high school. I know what he can do to you. I ain't that dumb."
Maryland's problems began with 3:09 left when Bias and Rudd got tangled under the Maryland basket. Bias, trying to pull free of Rudd, caught him in the head with an elbow. Rudd went down as if hit by a truck.
As he lay prone, with the crowd going crazy, Wake's Carl Tacy, normally the quietest of coaches, came on the court -- but not to see about Rudd. Instead, Tacy walked angrily toward Bias and yelled, "You should be proud of yourself," his voice dripping with sarcasm and fury.
Bias was shocked. "It was an accident," he said. "That's what I told Coach Tacy. We got tangled and I was trying to get free. He should say something to Kenny Green about the elbow he threw at me in the first half. That was intentional."
Told of Bias' comments, Tacy said, "If it was an accident, then I apologize. At the time, I didn't think it was. There's no place in the game for that kind of thing. And I had told Kenny that earlier after he threw his. That's not right either way."
Rudd came out and the Terrapins built the lead to 61-49 on a Lewis free throw with 2:16 left. Rudd returned -- and the manic finish began.
It began innocently when Rudd hit a jumper from the corner and freshman Charlie Thomas made a free throw to cut the lead to 61-52. Then, just as they had done last month at North Carolina, the Terrapins tried to give the game away at the foul line.
First, Branch missed with 1:22 left and Rudd, seemingly rejuvenated, hit from the corner again to make it 61-54 with 1:10 left. Then, Keith Gatlin, who had sat for most of the second half, missed another foul shot with 48 seconds left and Green got loose inside to make it 61-56 with 40 seconds to go.
"I was definitely thinking of the Carolina game then," Gatlin said. "It seemed like there we were missing our free throws again."
Rudd made a steal seconds after Green's basket and tossed in another bomb from the corner to cut the lead to 61-58, then stole Lewis' horrid inbounds pass right under the basket and laid the ball in to make it 61-60 with 24 seconds left.
Suddenly, it was panic time for the Terrapins. "They just didn't seem to have any confidence in their press offense," said Garber. "We just dug down and they just kept making mistakes."
During the final seconds, there were several close calls for the Terrapins, but they never made the fatal final error. Twice, they called time to avoid being tied up with the basketball. Four times in 12 seconds, they had to throw inbounds passes. They never advanced the ball beyond mid-court. But Wake never got the last steal and had to foul Adkins with 10 seconds left.
"I wanted the ball in that situation," said Adkins, who in past years has said that he doesn't want it. "Heck, I'm a senior, I'm supposed to be able to handle these situations. I mean I should be able to make a free throw."
Adkins made two to make it 63-60. After a Maryland timeout, Rudd went to the basket for what looked like the final play of the game, cutting the lead to 63-62 with three seconds left.
Wake was out of timeouts, so the clock should have run out. But Rudd kicked the ball into the stands and the officials stopped the clock and did not call a technical foul on Rudd for throwing the ball away. "I didn't expect to get that call," Branch said with a grin. "You can't expect that on the road."
Instead, Maryland had to pass inbounds again and Adkins was fouled again. This time, he made the first shot to make it 64-62, but missed the second. Thomas rebounded and threw immediately to Garber. He took one dribble, stopped just short of mid-court and flung up the set shot that seemed to take forever to come down.