Point guards earn their keep by placing basketballs in exactly the right places so exactly the right players can toss them into orange hoops. For 39 minutes and 55 seconds yesterday, Keith Gatlin had been flawless at it.
Truth is, Maryland's fluid feeder had been exceptional for 79 minutes and 55 seconds. In a guard's league and a guard's season, Gatlin had been the glittering guard of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
He had foiled every bit of North Carolina trickery in the quarterfinals, sliced through presses and traps for 18 points and eight assists in a 10-point Maryland upset. When Coach Dean Smith of North Carolina mentioned Maryland's "onslaught," Gatlin almost surely was dribbling in his mind.
For 79 minutes and 55 seconds, against such marquee names as Kenny Smith, Steve Hale, Jeff Lebo, Mark Price and Bruce Dalrymple, Gatlin had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 14 to 3. That's an all-tournament stat.
Marvelous, if not Magic, Gatlin made one pass too many Saturday. Once more the assist was beyond belief; once more the ball arrived in such a way that only an act of God could cause the shooter to miss.
Except it was an opponent Gatlin set up for a sure thing.
His only turnover cost Maryland the game against Georgia Tech. No sense being delicate. However many times television replays Duane Ferrell's steal and dunk, Gatlin will see it more often.
"You want to crawl under a table; 17,000 people are looking at you," he was saying in the Maryland dressing room. "But there's nothing you can do, really."
His narrow tie hung loose against a half-buttoned white shirt. He also was open -- and blunt. This was precisely where he had been so joyous less than 18 hours earlier.
"We should have won," he insisted now, talking toward the floor.
"We had the ball with five seconds to go -- and our guys had been shooting well."
What shot through just about everybody's mind, as Gatlin took the ball at midcourt, was that Len Bias would find a way to win it for the Terrapins.
Fate seemed to be arranging just that.
Less than 30 seconds earlier, after a Georgia Tech miss, the ball had bounced off a bunch of eager hands -- and into Bias'. Then he pulled off a spin move that was both lustrous and lucky.
One monstrous dribble to the right fetched him past John Salley and to the foul line. Bias twisted his body away from Salley; he twisted the ball away from the swatting Price and he shot.
The fickle ball had trouble deciding who to favor with its bounce. Once -- twice -- maybe a third time it danced on the rim -- and fell through the basket.
Ten seconds left.
After two timeouts, terrific Terry Long picked Price clean on a full-court trap, clutched the ball and immediately called time with five seconds left.
Something pretty powerful was at work.
"The pass was to go either to Jeff Baxter or Bias," Gatlin explained, patiently. "Price cheated on Baxter. He might have gotten open, but it was too late."
A step or so away, the official was counting. Gatlin could hear him. One -- two -- three. Dalrymple, the pest, was even closer, jumping and waving his arms.
Bias was Gatlin's only alternative for the best of reasons. The two other Terrapins on the court were setting picks for him.
"Ferrell jumped the pick, and I kinda panicked," Gatlin admitted. "Panicked and threw a bad pass. Yes, I should have called time. It was too late when it left my hands."
What had been heavenly for Maryland suddenly was horrible. Wasn't overtime the worse possibility for the Terrapins?
"Shock" is what Baxter felt.
"There's nothing you can do," he said of watching Ferrell suddenly in full flight. "You hope he misses."
Or that Gatlin intercepts him before he can shoot. An instant late, Gatlin nailed him.
"We practice that inbounds play all the time," Gatlin said.
"We have run it 1,000 times in practice," Coach Lefty Driesell said.
Maybe that's 842 times too many. Maybe Maryland is too predictable in its out-of-bounds plays. Had Georgia Tech scouted the Terrapins exceptionally -- or guessed wonderfully?
"It almost seemed like Ferrell knew," Gatlin said. "He got it done."
Against North Carolina in Carmichael Auditorium last regular season, Gatlin threw an inbounds pass that seemed predestined for Curtis Hunter. Had the Tar Heels known?
Gatlin also missed the final shot, an open 18-footer, in a one-point loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta this regular season.
"Hey," he said. "I've been the goat before. I can handle it again."
Only Fred Brown can honestly empathize with Gatlin. He felt even worse.
The first instinct fine players experience after a Gatlin-like goof is the same one bronco riders do after a fall: Gimme another chance.
Georgetown's Brown could not get the ball again for another year. His gift to James Worthy -- and North Carolina -- came in the NCAA championship game.
Gatlin is a week away from partial redemption.
"Can't get down," he said.
"I think we'll regroup," Baxter said.
Still, he could not forget: "We had the ball game won, even considering we didn't play all that well."
So the best teams in the ACC, Duke and Georgia Tech, will play Sunday for the title after all. Most expected that, though hardly in such a bizarre way. To Gatlin goes the same wish Brown got: life owes you one.