His players fought back tears, but Lefty Driesell was dry-eyed. He had watched his Maryland basketball team shoot 36 percent tonight, fall just a little too far behind and lose to Villanova, 46-43, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament's Southeast Regional.

So, once again, Driesell repeated the lines of his youth. He talked about how proud he was of this team, which finished 25-12. He talked about almost coming back from a 10-point deficit after the Terrapins had gone 9:20 without scoring to dig themselves into a hole. He talked about the great defense played by both teams.

But for a 25th year, Driesell could not change the bottom line: he will not be coaching in the Final Four.

What made that particularly tough to take for his players was the knowledge that they easily could have ended that streak.

"It was all there, all right there," said forward Len Bias, choking back his frustration. "Of all the nights for me to shoot four for 13. I just can't believe it."

While Bias, whose eight points was a season low, was struggling, Ed Pinckney of Villanova was dominating. After a quiet first half in which he took three shots and scored three points, Pinckney took over the game.

Before he was finished, he had scored 16 points, gotten 13 rebounds, been the defensive key on Bias and gotten the two crucial offensive rebounds that Driesell thought were the difference in the game.

"His play speaks for itself," said Adrian Branch, who tried single-handedly to pull his team through, scoring 21 points as the only Terrapin in double figures. "When the game was on the line, he made the plays. We didn't. That's why we're going home."

They are going home, while Villanova (22-10) advances to Sunday's regional final against North Carolina -- a 62-56 winner over Auburn late tonight -- mostly because of the 9:20 scoreless stretch during which they were outscored by 15-0 and because they were outrebounded by 40-29.

The trouble began just when it seemed the Terrapins might be the team to take control in a first half in which both teams shot as if they were afraid of breaking the backboard.

Bias had hit his first and only field goal of the half with a jarring dunk that made it 20-15, Maryland, with 2:10 to go.

Little did anyone in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center know that Maryland would not score again until Terry Long made two foul shots to make it 30-22, Villanova, with 12:50 left in the game.

In the meantime, everything went wrong for the Terrapins. Holding for the last shot of the half with a 20-17 lead, point guard Keith Gatlin, unable to see the overhead clock (the only one in the building) shot way too soon.

"I heard the Villanova bench counting down and I couldn't see a thing on the clock," Gatlin said. "I just shot it up there and hoped I was right."

He was wrong. The Wildcats ended up getting a basket at the buzzer, on a ridiculous wrong-foot shot by the always ice-cold Harold Pressley (three for 12 tonight). That made it 20-19 at the half.

Then, in their first nine possessions of the second half, the Terrapins missed seven shots and had two turnovers.

Pinckney seized upon that and made the game his. He scored seven points in a row to extend a 23-20 advantage to 30-20, the last basket coming on a straight power move on which he posted in the lane, turned and went between three defenders to score.

That came with 13:00 left. The rest of the night was a desperate scramble for Maryland.

"You can only fall behind so many times and get away with it," observed center Derrick Lewis, who didn't score. "We escaped twice last week, but not tonight."

With Bias quelled by the combination of Pinckney and Pressley -- he failed to score in double figures for the first time in 53 games -- and no one else able to score, it was left up to Branch. In his final college game, he was never better. "All I did against Bias was try to push him out a little and get my arms up," Pinckney said. "I have long arms and I think that helped me. But Branch almost did it for them."

Indeed. After a couple of Villanova turnovers had enabled the Terrapins to creep to 43-36 on an 18-footer by Branch, Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino leaped to his feet with 5:40 left and screamed, "We've got enough!"

That is Massimino's signal to his team to spread the court and hold the ball. Villanova almost never loses in that situation. Tonight, it easily could have. Twice in a row, the Wildcats turned over the ball.

Bias' dunk off Branch's pass cut the lead to 43-38. Plenty of time was left. But the Wildcats ran the clock to 2:54 before Pressley was fouled. He missed, but Pinckney tapped the rebound back and the Wildcats killed another 30 seconds before Pressley traveled.

Branch promptly hit a 15-footer to make it 43-40, but the clock was down to 2:05.

Again, the Wildcats spread. This time, the clock went to 1:03 before Pressley was fouled. He missed the free throw. Pinckney got the rebound. He was fouled, and with 59 seconds left, made both shots to make it 45-40.

"I thought the two plays by Pinckney cost us the ball game," Driesell said. "We dug a hole, gutted it up and came back.

"In the NCAA, little things decide. Tonight, those two little rebounds were real big and probably decided."

Branch wasn't quite finished. He hit another short shot to make it 45-42, and when Pressley made one of two free throws with 44 seconds to go, it was 46-42 and still possible.

But Branch, fouled in the lane, made just one of two with 28 seconds left and it was 46-43. Villanova's Harold Jensen cooperated with a miss at the line with 20 seconds remaining.

But, with a chance to cut the lead to one, Branch passed to a surprised Gatlin rather than taking a shot.

"I thought he was going to take it up," Gatlin said. "When I got the ball I knew we had almost no time left, so I just threw it up."

The shot was woefully short, an air ball, and it went right to Pinckney. That was the game, that was the season. It ended with an air ball.

"I didn't want to go out this way," said Branch, his eyes wet. "I want to be a winner and I don't feel like one right now. Someday, somewhere, I'll get to some kind of Final Four."

Someday, somewhere, his college coach might, too. But not this year -- again.