Apprehension ruled fifth-ranked Georgia Tech's preparations for its game against Maryland, and with good reason. The Terrapins have to be considered the most improved team over the course of the Atlantic Coast Conference season after their three-day performance in which they shocked No. 1 North Carolina Thursday in Chapel Hill and then kept pace with the Yellow Jackets until the final three minutes Saturday at Cole Field House.
"We knew what we had to do, and what we had to do was play a great game," Coach Bobby Cremins said.
What Georgia Tech did was put together a near perfect performance. Maryland's bid for a second straight giant-killing was stopped by Georgia Tech's shooting statistics: 71 percent for the game and a barely believable 86 percent in the second half as the Yellow Jackets missed only three shots from the field. Even so, the Terrapins (15-12 overall and 4-8 in the ACC) matched them shot for shot most of the night, going 18 for 32 in the second half to Georgia Tech's 18 for 21.
Under normal circumstances, a team might be expected to miss a few down the stretch. Georgia Tech (21-4 and 9-3) had led at the half, 33-38, after Maryland had held a five-point margin, and the Yellow Jackets' 59 percent first-half shooting should have cooled off. Instead, Mark Price and Duane Ferrell made their last six shots of the game and John Salley his last four.
"Every time we scored, they answered," Maryland point guard Keith Gatlin said. "Usually, they'll miss a couple. But they just never did."
That probably had something to do with Maryland's revolving combination of zone and man defenses, which could not contain Georgia Tech's scorers. Seven-foot center Salley hurt them badly inside, going nine for 11, mostly on layups or jams, with 12 of his 22 points coming in the lane in the second half. But 20 more second-half points came on perimeter shots, eight on guard Mark Price's long jumpers.
"I don't know how good our defense was if they shot 71 percent," Coach Lefty Driesell said. "Salley hurt us a great deal inside. But it wasn't that bad, either. That was just great shooting; not many teams in the country can do that. They didn't just come from the inside."
Driesell was visibly frustrated by the loss of a game that held so much promise for Maryland, which had won four of its last five ACC games. What he was most upset about was the scheduling that forced the Terrapins to meet two top-five teams within 48 hours, which may have accounted for some defensive sluggishness against Georgia Tech's relentless offense.
Although their 77-72 upset of North Carolina gave them momentum coming into the Georgia Tech game, they did not leave Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center until well after midnight Thursday as a result of the 9 p.m. tipoff for television. That left them with just a day, Friday, to return home and prepare for Saturday's 4 p.m. tipoff.
"I don't think we had a fair shot at getting ready," Driesell said. "I'm not interested in Thursday night television games. I don't think the Thursday-Saturday thing is right, especially when it's a road game and we have to turn around and come back to play at home. It's the third time that's happened to us this season. No other team has had to do it three times."
Maryland will end its regular season this when it plays Wake Forest Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C., then returns to Cole Field House Saturday to meet Virginia. The Terrapins probably need to win at least one of them to be reasonably hopeful of an NCAA bid.
Another local team is preparing to finish its regular season with an all-important game: 17th-ranked Navy will play Richmond Tuesday in Annapolis. The Midshipmen (23-4) and Spiders (22-4) are tied for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association with 12-1 records.