Thirty-three games, thousands and thousands of miles and several trips up and down the basketball roller coaster, Maryland ended its regular season today exactly where it was expected to be before the season began.
More important, the Terrapins are almost exactly where they want to be. They finished the regular season with a tough 60-55 victory over a Virginia team that has hung in all season on grit, heart and little else.
By winning, behind 23 points from Adrian Branch and some clutch late-game foul shooting, Maryland came in at 23-10, 8-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That means the Terrapins, picked fifth in preseason, tied for fourth in the league with Duke. They will meet the Blue Devils in the first round of the ACC tournament Friday at 2 in Atlanta's Omni.
Virginia (15-14, 3-11), beset by all sorts of problems since Day One this season, finished last in the ACC for the first time since 1977. The Cavaliers, the No. 8 seeds, will open the tournament Friday at noon against top-seeded Georgia Tech.
"I haven't even thought about the tournament yet," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said. "I'm glad, though, that we're playing well now. We had two good conference wins on the road and that's an encouraging sign this time of year."
Most encouraging about this game from Driesell's viewpoint was that it was played almost as Virginia would have wanted it -- and Maryland still won.
Least encouraging for Maryland is that the team won again with Driesell clad in his off-white golf sweater and nonmatching white golf shirt.
It's a terrible outfit, but the Terrapins are 2-0 with Driesell in it. It probably will be seen again. "Anything to keep us winning," Driesell said.
Today, the halftime score was 23-22, Maryland, the Terrapins shooting 36 percent and Virginia 33 percent. That Virginia wanted this game badly was apparent in the first half when normally placid Coach Terry Holland pulled a move straight from the book of his old mentor, Driesell, waving his arms to try to get the 9,000 fans in University Hall going.
The fans got going, but the Cavaliers could not. In foul trouble, Maryland went to a lot of zone and the Cavaliers, leading by 20-12 with 6:08 left, were outscored, 11-2, the rest of the half.
"They make it tough to get going because they're so physical," said Maryland's Len Bias (10 points), who spent a lot of the day in foul trouble and took only six shots. "They just never let you get running."
Neither team could get much offense going most of the game. Although Maryland won the boards, 33-27, Virginia consistently got back before the Terrapins could start running. Both teams played solid defense, switching frequently. Most notable was the job done by Derrick Lewis (nine points, 10 rebounds), who held Virginia's leading scorer, Olden Polynice, to eight points and seven rebounds.
Nevertheless, the Cavaliers battled back into the lead with eight minutes left when Tim Mullen stole Speedy Jones' pass and went coast-to-coast to make it 39-38. The lead grew to 41-38 when Branch missed a jump shot and Mullen (10 points, two fewer than Mel Kennedy) hit another jumper.
But Virginia couldn't hang on. After Bias' strong move in the lane cut Virginia's lead to 45-44, Cavalier Darrick Simms tried a bad shot. Branch quickly responded by driving the left side of the lane for a three-point play that made it 47-45 with 3:47 left.
Virginia never got even again. Tom Sheehey missed a base line drive and point guard Keith Gatlin, just as he had done Wednesday at North Carolina State, scored from the base line with the 45-second clock running out. That made it 49-45 with 2:40 left, and the march to the foul line began.
It ended with the Terrapins making seven of 10 (plus a Branch jumper in between) and the victory was secure.
Driesell was so pleased to win that he even put in a plug for Virginia directed at the NCAA tournament committee. "I think Virginia is definitely one of the top 64 teams in the country and they should be in the NCAA tournament," he said. "Anybody that thinks Virginia, Wake Forest or Clemson shouldn't be in the tournament is crazy."
The kind words did little to console the Cavaliers, who felt they easily could have won.
"We had the shots at the end, they just wouldn't fall for us," said Sheehey, who made four of 12 shots. "We got into position to win, but we just couldn't. That's the way it's been most of the year."
Holland agreed. "It was like an instant replay today of some of the games we've played this year," he said. "I don't think we could have done much better in the second half. We made them make tough shots."
When Maryland is on, it makes tough shots. The last two games when Bias, double-teamed always, has made only seven of 22 shots, it has been Branch (18 for 29) who has made most of those tough shots.
"Just seeing single coverage the last couple of games has been a nice change of pace," he said. "When I'm guarded by one guy, I'm pretty sure I can score."
As long as teams continue to believe they must use two men to stop Bias -- a reasonable assumption -- Branch should get one-on-one coverage. And, if he continues to shoot as he has in the past week, a repeat of last year's scene in Greensboro -- a tournament championship by the Terrapins -- is far from impossible.