He sat alone on the locker room bench as his players quietly answered the same questions again and again. Occasionally, someone would pass by and offer a hand or a word of comfort. Lefty Driesell quietly accepted each hand, each word.

There was no anger in the Maryland coach. No real sadness. Only resignation. This was a script he had read before. Twenty years ago, he would have ranted and screamed. Ten years ago, he would have vowed to come back. He would have said something like, "The sun don't shine on the same dog every day."

But now, 10 years removed from his last appearance in the NCAA final eight, Lefty Driesell was almost meek in his acceptance of defeat. Villanova defeated Maryland, 46-43, Friday in the Southeast Regional in a sloppy, ugly game. The Wildcats won because they held Len Bias to eight points and because they outscored the Terrapins, 15-0, during a period of 9 minutes 20 seconds late in the first half and early in the second.

And after the fact, Driesell, who has always been the snarling, never-accept-losing competitor, just accepted it. "I'm proud of these kids," he said. "We went 25-12 against the toughest schedule in the country and made the final 16. I think we had a great year."

A good year, yes. Any year in which you win 25 games playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference and reach the final 16 is a good year. But it was not a great year. Greatness in college basketball can only be achieved in March. Driesell has never had a great March.

Fifteen to nothing. With Bias and Adrian Branch, two of the most prolific scorers in Maryland history, on the floor, the Terrapins went through nearly one-fourth of the game without a point. In December, you shrug it off. In March, you spend the summer wondering what went wrong.

The Driesell critics will demand to know how it happened . . . again. They will dredge up the numbers: 25 years and not one Final Four appearance.

If Driesell were an average coach, just another journeyman, that statistic would mean little. Lots of coaches never reach the Final Four; most, in fact, never even sniff it. But few coaches win more than 500 games, win seven of every 10 games they coach and then face failure time and again with the spotlight shining in their eyes.

Each season, it seems, the last question asked in the Maryland locker room is, "What went wrong?" Villanova was certainly beatable Friday. Illinois was beatable one year ago. Indiana may not have been beatable in 1981, but 99-64?

And each year, the answer is the same: "It just wasn't our night." Or, "It just wasn't meant to be."

There may be another answer. Driesell is a volatile personality, an intense, emotional man. He is prone to blowups at players, at writers, at coaches. Through it all, he survives because he is a good coach who recruits good players.

But when a team rides an emotional roller coaster each year beginning on Oct. 15, the experience is inevitably draining. Few years pass at Maryland without some controversy, some blowup. Senior Jeff Adkins, musing on the season a couple of weeks ago, said, "It's been a controversial season around here." Then Adkins stopped himself. "Of course, every season around here is controversial."

In March, you can't have an offnight because it means you go home. When a team is taken up and down the emotional elevator by its coach day in and day out all season, it almost inevitably is going to hit one of those down days on a game day.

In the 10 years since Maryland last reached the final eight, players like Brad Davis, John Lucas, Steve Sheppard, Mo Howard, Albert King, Buck Williams, Greg Manning, Branch and Bias have worn the Maryland uniform.

Great players who never achieved greatness as a team.

The two coaches whose teams are playing here in Sunday's regional final, Villanova's Rollie Massimino and North Carolina's Dean Smith, have been this far four times and five times, respectively, during that time. Driesell says Smith has always had better talent than he. Has Massimino?

"Lefty is a great coach," Massimino, a friend, said today. "He works as hard as anyone in this business. He's a good, humble person. I hope I can achieve what he has in coaching someday. I've been this far, but I've never been to the Final Four."

Neither has Driesell. Massimino's face dropped. "I thought he'd been there once," he said.

Dean Smith is not a friend, he is a tormentor. But having been criticized for years because he had not won the national title, Smith can empathize with Driesell. "When we came here it entered my mind that we might play Maryland and that would be Lefty's chance again," he said. "I think every good coach should have the chance to experience the Final Four. But he's at least been close, making it to the regional final."

The last time was 10 years ago. Smith flinched noticeably. "Oh, was it?"

Two weeks ago someone asked Driesell if, at 53, he would be greatly disappointed if he never reached the Final Four. "No, not really," he answered. "I'd like to do it before I die, but it's not that big a deal."

Once, it was the only deal for Driesell. Now he talks about 20-win seasons and getting into the 64-team NCAA tournament. Only when pushed does he talk about winning it.

Maybe Driesell will catch a second wind and come back snarling and scratching. His competitiveness has always been his strength.

But Friday night he walked quietly away from another season. No vows. No promises. Perhaps even no regrets. He seemed a man resigned to his fate.

If true, what a shame.