Maryland survived its opening-round basketball game in the NCAA West regional on a little good fortune, a little nerve, and perhaps the voodoo pantomimes of its bench today, defeating a Pepperdine squad that passed as the home team, 69-64, at Long Beach Arena.
The Terrapins (19-13) will meet Nevada-Las Vegas here Sunday at 7 p.m. (EST) in the second round. The Runnin' Rebels disposed of Northeast Louisiana, 74-51, in today's first game.
Tonight, St. John's (31-4), top seed in the 16-team West regional split between here and Ogden, Utah, hurdled Montana State (14-17), but even with 31 points from all-America Walter Berry it was no cakewalk: 83-74.
St. John's next plays Auburn (20-10), a 73-63 winner over Arizona (23-9).
Maryland squandered most of a 12-point lead it had taken with 6:25 to go and let the Waves come within two points with 39 seconds left. But the Terrapins finally pulled away on free throws, seven in all in the final 37 seconds with four of those completing a 26-point game for all-America forward Len Bias.
The Terrapins went without a field goal for that final 6:25, Bias' jam and free throw constituting their final points from the field and giving them the 12-point lead, 55-43. And while their last 14 points came from the foul line, Keith Gatlin and Derrick Lewis missed free throws in the final 1:28 that helped along the threatening comeback of a Pepperdine team that drew large representation from nearby Malibu in the crowd of 11,696.
So when Bias readied for a one-and-one with 37 seconds remaining and the Waves trailing just 62-60, Maryland's bench did the strangest thing. Center Terry Long started it. As Bias approached the line, he crossed his legs to the right. The rest of the Terrapins did the same. Bias made the free throw, then the bench crossed its collective legs to the left. Bias made the second.
Perpperdine came within two again moments later, forward Anthony Frederick's rebound layup making it 64-62 with 24 seconds to go. This time Gatlin approached the line for a two-shot foul, and the pantomime began again. Gatlin made both, and the Waves never came closer than four again. Superstitious? Not much.
"It was silly," Long said. "I picked it up in high school. I just started it and everyone else started doing it too."
"We were laughing," said guard Jeff Baxter, who was watching curiously from the court. "We said, 'What are they doing?' But we made the free throws after that."
Pepperdine (25-5), champion of the West Coast Athletic Conference, played the Terrapins to a 31-31 tie at halftime, only to face the 12-point deficit that came on Maryland's 11-2 run over a 2:31 span during the middle of the second period. Then the Waves rolled in with a 17-7 rally.
Five of Maryland's seven second-half turnovers -- 14 for the game -- came in that last 6 1/2 minutes. Pepperdine at last closed within two on a free throw from Grant Gondrezick, who had seven points in the run, with 39 seconds left.
"We didn't play well with a lead," Coach Lefty Driesell said. "But we've been in enough close games to know how to handle it. It just seems like we had the big lead, and all of a sudden I looked up and it was a seven-point game, then a five-point game. Then anything can happen."
Anything almost did. With 1:28 remaining and the Terrapins up, 62-57, Maryland had a chance to pull away when Lewis drew a foul from Eric White. It was the fifth personal on Pepperdine's second-leading scorer, who joined Gondrezick in leading the Waves today with 17 points each. White went to the bench as Lewis went to the line on a two-shot foul. Lewis missed both, then guard Jon Korfas drew a foul from Baxter on the other end. He made his free throws for 62-59 with 1:03 left.
Then Korfas fouled Gatlin, who drew a blank on the one-and-one.
"We just didn't do the things we needed to when we had the lead," said Gatlin, who had an uncharacteristic six turnovers. "We did things we don't normally do at this time of year. We got careless."
But Bias finally stepped forward to sink his free throws, capping a game in which he set a Maryland single-season scoring record. He has 712 points, passing the mark he set last year, 701.
Lewis furnished 13 points and 11 rebounds, Gatlin 10 points and nine assists.
"We had all the momentum," Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick said. "We had them, in my estimation, on the ropes."
"Bias got about five points too many. I was thinking before the game if we could hold him to 15 or 20 we'd be in pretty good shape."
Pepperdine's Dwayne Polee, a 6-foot-5 NBA prospect, was held to two points in the second half for a game total of 12. His antics in the first half kept the Waves in it, and he also mixed it up with Bias. The incident came 5:32 before intermission, he and Bias exchanging words and Bias pushing him in the face. Both earned technicals.
"I felt like we had the momentum," Polee said. "Especially when they started to lose the ball. I just felt we didn't capitalize on their mistakes."
Maryland will have a more difficult opponent in Nevada-Las Vegas (32-4), which won an early-season meeting, 64-63 in overtime at College Park. The Runnin' Rebels got 18 points and six rebounds from Washingtonian Anthony Jones, took a 31-21 lead into intermission and built margins up to 27 points over a Northeast Louisiana team (20-10) obviously out of its weight class.
Northeast Louisiana, champion of the Southland Conference, had not played a top 20 team, nor had it played another member of the 64-team NCAA field. The Indians were at a severe height disadvantage against the Rebels, who simply wore them down, outrebounding them, 54-35.
"It was very physical," said forward Bobby Jenkins. "It was just about impossible for us to play that kind of game against guys who were so much bigger than us."
Montana State stayed within range of St. John's much of the way, leading by five points before falling behind, 40-33, at the half, then rallying from 14 points down to within five with nine minutes left and 76-70 later on.
But each time the Bobcats got close, Berry came through, despite limping on a left ankle he turned on a drive with 7 1/2 minutes gone. Tony Hampton and Kral Ferch led Montana State with 21 and 20 points, respectively.