The game had just ended, and the Maryland basketball players, embraced as one, fell to the floor in a heap of joy at midcourt. Seconds before, the Terrapins had completed their third straight upset victory to win the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament before 2,632 at the Cumberland County Arena.

The unfortunate team to run into the streaking Terrapins tonight was 17th-ranked North Carolina (22-8), which couldn't control freshman guard Deana Tate and lost to Maryland, 90-74. Tate scored a game-high 32 points and was named the tournament's most valuable player.

The Terrapins (17-12) started this game with the same confidence that allowed them to trounce third-ranked Virginia in the semifinals. They moved the ball up the court quickly, attacked inside on offense and were annoying on defense. The result was a 27-6 lead with 9:44 remaining in the first half.

The Terrapins' enormous lead did not hold up as easily as their advantages in the first two games of the tournament had, however. North Carolina chipped away and came within seven points in the second half. But in the second half, the Tar Heels could not stop Tate, who scored from seemingly everywhere on the court for 20 points.

Said senior forward Chequita Wood: "She gets us going. She goes on the fast break and scores and gets everybody up."

Perhaps happier than Tate was Maryland Coach Chris Weller, whose team lost in the previous two ACC tournaments after winning five of the first six.

"I don't know where to begin," she said. "We thought that we could win it if we played well. We just came in and probably played to our maximum. I don't know what else to say."

After defeating favored North Carolina State (77-55) and Virginia (92-68), Maryland started out this game by dominating inside and taking a 25-4 lead on Tate's base-line jumper.

When Vicky Bullett made a short base-line shot with five minutes to play in the half, the Terrapins led, 35-16.

But North Carolina missed only four shots the final 10 minutes and outscored the Terrapins, 14-4, to narrow the lead to 39-30 at the half.

The Tar Heels began to dominate inside, with forwards Dawn Royster and Kathy Wilson each scoring six in the run. For the first time in the tournament, the momentum had switched heavily against Maryland.

At halftime, Weller said she told her team: "Now look, you've been spoiled a lot. You thought you were just going to do it to everybody."

Said Wood: "We were just trying to remind ourselves we still had the lead."

When Pam Leake made a 15-footer to bring the Tar Heels to within seven, 43-36, it appeared Maryland, starting three freshmen, was beginning to feel the pressure of a championship game.

But it was a freshman, Tate, who took control. With Maryland ahead, 58-48, Tate rebounded Subrena Rivers' missed free throw and scored. She then scored on a fast-break layup and a 10-footer.

North Carolina again cut the lead to 10 points, 76-66, with three minutes to play and called a timeout. Tate made two free throws, however, and Bullett a jumper.

After another Tar Heels' timeout, Tate stole the ball and Bullett gave Maryland a 16-point advantage.

"I thought we came out really fired up in the second half," said North Carolina Coach Jennifer Alley. "Yet we came out on the court not knowing what we were supposed to do."

Tate was helped by Bullett's 20 points, Lisa Brown's 14 and Wood's 11. Dawn Royster had 21 points and Kathy Wilson 20 for the Tar Heels.

Tate, Wood and Bullett were named to the all-tournament team along with Leake and Wake Forest's Amy Privette.

Wood, who tonight moved past Tara Heiss into fifth place on Maryland's all-time scoring list, stood with cigar in hand after the game.

"Somebody gave it to me," she said. "I said: 'Okay, I'll just save it.' This is one of the happiest victories."