Keith Gatlin was sitting quietly in his apartment Sunday night, trying not to think about The Pass, when the telephone rang. It was Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, who also was trying not to think about it.
"Are you all right?" Driesell asked.
"I'm fine," Gatlin said.
"Good," Driesell said. "Get that mess out of your head and start thinking about Pepperdine."
That has been the tenor of conversation at Maryland for the last couple of days. Gatlin has a bruise on his shoulder where he has taken several hundred pats of condolence, and he has something of an earache from listening to well-wishers express their sorrow at the Terrapins' last-second loss to Georgia Tech Saturday in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
But Maryland's point guard has made a speedy recovery from one of the Terrapins' more frustrating losses. Support has been overwhelming for Gatlin, and the memory of his errant pass -- which became Duane Ferrell's shocking steal and jam with one second remaining to give the Yellow Jackets a 64-62 victory in Greensboro, N.C. -- has been short-lived.
Maryland's meeting with Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA tournament has taken precedence. The Terrapins learned Sunday that they will travel to Long Beach, Calif., to meet the Waves (25-4) Friday at Long Beach Arena.
If Gatlin is not overly bothered by the Terrapins' demise in the ACC tournament, it is because they have had several reasons for celebration lately. A team that lost eight of 10 games at one point, including its first six in conference play, went on a hot streak in the last few weeks. Until the Georgia Tech loss, the Terrapins had won four of their last five, including an 85-75 victory over fourth-ranked North Carolina in the opening round of the tournament.
"Finally, people recognize that we're playing well," Gatlin said. "That steal may be what everyone is going to remember, but the fact is that we outplayed every team down there."
Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins defended Gatlin at length after the game and made a special trip across the court to throw an arm around the 6-foot-5 junior.
Gatlin had an excellent tournament up to that point. He had started the season tentatively, displaying little of the playmaking ability that makes him one of the Terrapins' more creative scorers. But in Greensboro, he may have given two of his best performances of the season.
He scored 18 points and added eight assists in Maryland's victory over North Carolina and had 10 points and six assists against the Yellow Jackets. For the tournament, he turned the ball over only four times: three times against North Carolina, and just once against Georgia Tech, on the last play.
But Gatlin has taken the bulk of the blame for Maryland's failure in several areas. That probably is because the play was so glaring: the inbounds pass was recognized by the Yellow Jackets, and Ferrell broke a pick to make a startlingly easy steal. That left Gatlin alone, chasing him up the court to try to prevent his fast break. It was the kind of play that can ruin a player's self-esteem.
"I blamed myself for a while," he said. "But mainly because I know people who don't know basketball probably blame [me]. But I've been the goat before. That's all right.
"The only thing I'm really mad about is that the play gave me a turnover. I pride myself on not giving it up."
Gatlin's improvement has reflected the Terrapins' resurgence in general; their record has improved simultaneously with the emergence of the back court. Forward Len Bias was once the team's only consistent scorer, but in the last six games, four players have averaged in double figures -- Bias, Gatlin, guard Jeff Baxter and reserve forward Tom (Speedy) Jones.
It is crucial, going into the NCAA tournament, that Maryland's back court maintain that high level of play. The Terrapins shot 52 percent against the Yellow Jackets, outrebounded a front line that had a definite height advantage, and held an eight-point lead early in the second half.
"We outplayed all those Georgia Tech and Carolina guards," Gatlin said Baxter told him afterward.
Baxter put the issue of the Georgia Tech game to rest with a long conversation with Gatlin on Sunday.
"It won't haunt us," Baxter said. "Not in this situation. Keith is just fine."