Midway through the first half of Maryland's 68-53 victory over Clemson yesterday, an official called Steve Hood for his second foul. Terrapins assistant coach Oliver Purnell rose from his chair, took a couple steps and reminded head coach Bob Wade of the situation. Wade turned to his left, pointed a finger. With that, Keith Gatlin was back in action at Cole Field House.

Gatlin has been in the spotlight for most of his Maryland career, either on the court or in the courthouse. His performance on the former is where Gatlin decidedly has been at his best.

So when his name was announced, most in the sellout crowd of 14,500 stood and yelled with approval. And they cheered more as he scored 12 points, dished out six assists and helped hold off two Clemson rallies as the Terrapins raised their record to 9-3, 2-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They are tied with Duke and North Carolina for the league lead.

"I was excited to come back," Gatlin said. "But I messed up at first because I was tentative and excited."

Gatlin hadn't played in a game at Cole since the end of the 1985-85 season. While trying to deal with the emotional stress that stemmed from the death of friend Len Bias and the criminal investigations that followed, Gatlin ran into problems with the university. He piled up enough parking tickets that he was not allowed to register. Eventually, he was declared administratively ineligible for the 1986-87 season. He dropped out for a time.

He returned to school last summer. During the fall semester, Wade wanted him to concentrate on classes, so Gatlin did not formally practice with the team until Dec. 22, although he had never stopped working out. Wednesday night, in the Terrapins' loss at Missouri, he put his No. 3 uniform back on for the first time and scored 17 points.

But yesterday's game was the one that had him thinking.

"I really didn't get much sleep {Friday night}," Gatlin said.

In "messing up," Gatlin made a couple bad passes and missed his first two field goal attempts and his first two free throws. In the second half, after feeding Rudy Archer (game-high 15 points) for a three-point shot, Gatlin stole the ball. He went down court, but sensed Clemson's Jerry Pryor on his right. He looked back and saw Tony Massenburg trailing the play. Knowing that Massenburg would deliver with a thundering dunk and send the crowd into a frenzy, Gatlin dished back. Massenburg delivered, but Pryor stepped in front and drew the charge. Wade jumped up screaming at Gatlin for not taking the shot himself.

"I thought he was a lot closer to me," Gatlin said of Pryor. "I thought it would get the crowd going, but it ended up being a bad play on my part."

He saved his better plays for the stretch -- when they counted most.

"Keith Gatlin came in and gave us a real lift," Wade said. "I think he was a little nervous coming in, but for his second game I thought he played well."

Derrick Lewis is the only other senior on this team and he fed Gatlin for his first basket, which gave Maryland a 22-11 lead and brought another big hand.

"He's a quiet leader and I'm a quiet leader," said Lewis, the team captain. "Maybe we can be loud together."

Lewis and his brother Cedric may not be together on the court for a while. Cedric Lewis, who has missed the last five games, has mononucleosis and will be out indefinitely. Besides a general feeling of weakness, one sympton of the illness is an enlarged spleen, which could be damaged if he plays. Wade said it could be several weeks before Cedric Lewis could play again, so he said he is looking into the possibility of red-shirting Lewis. Wade said Maryland will do the necessary paperwork and wait to see what the NCAA says and how quickly Lewis recovers.

Rodney Walker, a transfer from Syracuse, made his Cole Field House debut but left after three minutes with a sprained ankle. It's uncertain if he will miss any playing time.

Maryland trailed once, at 2-0, but the final margin was its largest lead. Maryland was ahead, 48-38, with 6:17 left in the game when the Tigers made their last surge. Under the stress of the Clemson press, Maryland turned over the ball and the Tigers went on an 8-2 run to cut Maryland's lead to 50-46 with 4:44 left. As the clock dwindled to four minutes, Clemson had a chance to cut the lead to two. But Lewis made a steal and passed to Gatlin, who fed Archer for a basket that ended the final threat.

After Brian Williams blocked a shot, Gatlin made two free throws and fed Massenburg for a basket to push the lead back to 56-46 with 2:43 left.

"Last year we made free throws, this year we're not," said Wade, shaking his head. "But we've matured and I think we're able to finish a game. At times we would sort of let it get away, but now we're able to finish strong." CLEMSON Min FG FT R A PF T Pryor 34 5-13 4-6 8 2 3 14 Davis 12 1-4 1-2 4 0 1 3 Campbell 31 5-15 0-2 13 0 5