Jerry Tarkanian was eating his towel. What else could a rational man do under the circumstances? He had seen this act in the NCAA tournament before, and from an Atlantic Coast Conference team.

Here's how it goes: His gang of Runnin' Rebels gets what seems to be an unbeatable lead and then throws it away, faster than a wild-eyed hayseed with a fistful of silver dollars back in Las Vegas.

"My mind turned back the clock three years to the regional against N.C. State," he said. "We miss two of seven from the free-throw line in the last two minutes -- and lose on a tip-in in the last three seconds."

Maryland's players had something similar dancing through their heads as Nevada-Las Vegas' lousiest foul shooters were true to form.

"We fouled the people we were supposed to foul Eldridge Hudson and Mark Wade ," said Jeff Baxter. He could still see glory creeping closer and closer in the final 40 seconds -- and then, suddenly, falling through the floor in the Long Beach Arena.

"This hurts more, yes," he said. "We definitely could have won. Things didn't go our way down the stretch once again. I kinda thought we were going to go all the way."

He paused.

"I guess every player thinks that."

If he is good enough to dream big. Walter Berry thought he was going at least to Dallas -- and didn't. Same with Michigan. Syracuse figured it at least could get out of its own gym.

So it went for the Terrapins. They could have beaten UNLV yesterday, but the loss had a decent amount of dignity. The only problem is that they might not be the best team in area code 301.

UNLV can play. It swats away myths about as regularly as basketballs from naive guards. Maryland knew all about that coming in, and neutral observers nodded before tipoff that the Runnin' Rebels' being three-point favorites seemed about right.

"Lots of people think they're just an offensive team," Baxter said. "They're not. Their defense is great, as good as North Carolina's and Duke's. They weren't lettin' me shoot. Two people ran at me at all the time.

"I thought I was Lenny Bias at times, to tell the truth."

Teams almost always leave the court that way against Tarkanian's teams. Bewildered. Shaking their heads at how the Runnin' Rebels manage to double-team every shooter.

How can that zone be so effective? Or does the Shark really play a three-four zone and nobody notices the extra players? Seems so.

Bias had the 31 hardest points of his career. On the right base line once in the first half, he lifted himself off the floor and shot with eight hands in his face. The shot missed.

Tarkanian had poor-mouthed his front line all week, about how the poor fellows could not get the ball if there were more than one tip. Lead-foots, he all but called them.

Comes a possession midway through the second half and the guys in cement sneakers go up once . . . twice . . . three times . . . seven times in all before Armon Gilliam scores.

Also, whistles seem to be blowing constantly; official fingers always seem to be pointing toward somebody from UNLV. No team can survive such foul trouble.

Guess what? One of Maryland's finest inside players, Derrick Lewis, is the first to foul out. Four Runnin' Rebels have four fouls -- but not one is whistled out. You're a sly one, Tark.

Maryland made a wonderful run at the start of the second half; UNLV made a couple of even better ones. A Washingtonian, Dunbar High's Anthony Jones, was responsible as any one Runnin' Rebel for the Terrapins' demise.

Bias would back off Jones when he seemed so far from the basket he could scarcely see it, let alone swish something through it.

Each time Jones fired from afar; each time he scored.

Saluting the UNLV defense, Maryland was thumbs-down about its own.

Baxter was asked whether the Vegas defense was the game's pivotal strategy.

"I don't think so," he said. "We didn't play defense at critical times. "

Coach Lefty Driesell was livid at the Terrapins for premature celebration after they took an eight-point lead early in the second half, and for failing to work the ball to Bias near the end.

He once called time to say, in so many words: "Gentlemen, this fellow panting over here is Leonard Bias. He can win this game for us if you'd please, please pass him the ball."

Ears ringing, the Terrapins fed the hungry Bias -- and he scored their last 13 points. But reserve John Johnson missed a bonus free-throw situation and Baxter was called for charging on critical possessions in the last 27 seconds.

Before his foul shot, Johnson moved timidly to midcourt, and Baxter stepped toward the free-throw line.

Was there Terrapins trickery afoot? Was Driesell trying to slip in a senior for a freshman?

Not at all.

"The official pointed at me to take the shot," Baxter said. "But their cheerleaders and players yelled it wasn't supposed to be me."

Sensing Johnson might not be in the most confident mood, Tarkanian called time before his first effort. Two sure shots would pull Maryland within a point. He missed.

Bias was too upset to talk after the game. Neither he nor Berry will get a chance for the eagerly anticipated showdown at the next NCAA plateau. Berry's team's loss to Auburn was stunning.

The Redmen entered this region seeded No. 1; they left with red faces. They didn't play nearly so hard as Maryland. This day, call 'em St. Elsewhere.