The script was familiar. But tonight, Maryland finally wrote itself a happy ending.
Instead of missing foul shots and making crucial turnovers in the final moments of an Atlantic Coast Conference game as they have done most of this month, the Terrapins made their free throws and watched the opponent make the turnovers and miss the free throws.
It produced a stunning 71-70 victory over North Carolina State, a team that had won six in a row and seemed en route to the ACC regular-season title. Tonight, though, Jeff Baxter and Len Bias made two foul shots each in the final 12 seconds to preserve the lead after Adrian Branch (23 points) and Keith Gatlin (13) had produced it.
The Wolfpack is 8-5 in the league and 18-8 overall. Georgia Tech leads the league with a 9-5 record; North Carolina and Duke are 8-5.
Maryland is 7-6 in the ACC and 22-10 overall. The Terrapins can't win the conference, but they have beaten State seven straight times over three seasons and Coach Lefty Driesell, who showed up tonight in a sweater a la Lou Carnesecca, was happy enough after finally pulling out a close one.
"This proves we're a top 20 team again," he said. "We beat the hottest team in the league on their home court and that's a great win for us. We've lost a couple by missing foul shots, so it was nice to win one by making them for a change."
Driesell listed just about everyone who ever wore a Maryland uniform among this game's heroes, but the one player who probably made this victory possible for the Terrapins was N.C. State's Anthony (Spud) Webb.
Earlier tonight, Webb was a demon. The 5-foot-7 senior stole the ball four times in the early minutes and had nine points in the first half as the home team took a 36-31 lead.
The lead reached seven several times in the second half and was still 60-54 with 6:34 left to play. But State -- and Webb -- couldn't stand the prosperity.
Twice, he took shots on one-on-three breaks. And with the game on the line, he committed three turnovers in the last four minutes.
Webb's troubles began after a Bias jumper cut N.C. State's lead to 61-60 with 4:20 to go. Webb promptly overthrew Cozell McQueen.
Webb then fouled Gatlin as the Terrapin was swishing an 18-foot jumper. The three-point play made it 63-61, Maryland. Lorenzo Charles (19 points) tied it with a layup and, after a Branch walk, Charles made one of two from the line for a 64-63 N.C. State lead with 2:24 left.
When Bias missed again, State had the lead and the ball. Webb promptly threw it away. That set up two Branch foul shots that made it 65-64 with 1:42 to go. Webb immediately threw the ball over Nate McMillan's head for his last turnover.
"I just forced things a little too much," he said. "On that one, I slipped."
Forty-three seconds later, he slipped off of Gatlin to help on Branch, who was driving the middle. Branch kicked the ball off to Gatlin in the corner and he buried a jumper with two seconds left on the 45-second clock and 40 on the game clock to make it 67-64.
That left it up to free throws with a three-point lead.
It looked like deja vu when Speedy Jones missed a free throw with 25 seconds left and Charles cut the lead to 67-66 with 13 seconds to go. "When Speedy missed," Driesell said, "I thought I was going to kill him."
Instead, Driesell got smart and got Jones out of the game while he was still alive. Enter Baxter. The 6-1 junior had played well off the bench, even though he had to wear a pair of sneakers borrowed from N.C. State -- his were left at home.
With the lead at one, Baxter was fouled. Twelve seconds were left.
"I went to the line and Adrian said to me, 'Just like in practice, Bax,' " said Baxter, who had not faced such a situation in his college career. "I said, 'I got 'em, don't worry.' Then I heard the crowd yelling, 'Air ball,' at me. I was offended. I mean, I might miss, but I wasn't going to shoot any air ball.
"I said to myself, 'Oh, yeah, watch this.' "
They watched, as Baxter hit both shots for a 69-66 lead. After an uncontested Webb basket with six seconds left made it 69-68, it was Bias' turn.
"It's hard for me not to feel like I didn't lose the game," said Webb, his eyes red from crying. "At the end, the point guard is supposed to take over."
Fortunately for Maryland, Webb did just that.