It had been eight years since Maryland played a college basketball game against American and, given the Terrapins' woes in a laborious 72-69 victory last night at Cole Field House, it may be twice as long before they meet again.
"We'll play them again," said Terrapins Coach Gary Williams, the former Eagles coach whose team fought back from a seven-point deficit with 4:10 left. "We won't play them in between two conference games, but we'll play them again."
Unfortunately for the Terrapins, Cedric Lewis will no longer be wearing a Terrapins' uniform when that time comes. Asserting himself down the stretch, the senior ended with 15 points and six blocked shots, the biggest coming with 18 seconds left and Maryland nursing a 68-67 lead.
With the shot clock running down, Eagles forward Ron Davenport attempted a hook shot from the lane, but it was swatted away by Lewis. Teammate Garfield Smith grabbed the loose ball, was fouled and hit two free throws with 17 seconds left.
"I just wanted to prevent them from scoring," said Lewis, who has 105 blocks, nine short of the single-season record set by his brother, Derrick, in 1986-87. "I saw him go up so I thought I'd try to take a stab at the ball."
Smith hit a pair of foul shots with 1:01 left to give Maryland its 68-67 edge. The junior college transfer went to the line to replace Matt Downing, who separated his shoulder when he was fouled driving to the basket.
After Donald Grant missed a three-point shot that would have tied the score in the final 10 seconds, Smith hit two more foul shots with eight seconds remaining.
"I love that situation," said Smith, whose two foul shots with seven seconds left clinched Saturday's 104-100 victory over North Carolina State. "It's fun. Everyone sees you and recognizes you -- call me crazy but I just like it."
Very few among the crowd of 6,233 thought such heroics would be necessary. The Eagles (8-9) were supposed to be a tender morsel before the Terrapins (12-7) returned to the meatier ACC schedule Friday night at Georgia Tech.
But American, uncowed by its higher-profile opponent, was two or three plays from springing an upset, taking a 65-58 lead with 4:10 to play. That advantage was forged by Brock Wortman and Brian Gilgeous.
Gilgeous scored 16 of his 21 points and grabbed six of his 10 rebounds in the first half as American took a 38-36 lead into the locker room.
Wortman took over in the second half, hitting three three-point shots and scoring 11 consecutive points for the Eagles during one stretch. After Craig Sedmak hit a jumper and a three-point shot and Wortman scored on an alley-oop feed from Gilgeous, the American fans -- including former coach Ed Tapscott -- had to feel things were well in hand.
However, that confidence wasn't shared by the Eagles' players.
"Just about every game, we're in it, but we haven't been able to finish," said Gilgeous. "It gets frustrating sometimes because you don't get anything for playing well -- you need to win, and tonight it was right within our grasp."
And in fact the seven-point lead slipped through. Maryland's Kevin McLinton made a three-point play, then Matt Roe (Terrapins-high 17 points) hit a three-point shot from the left corner.
Grant hit two free throws for American with 2:48 left, but Roe hit one of two foul shots 19 seconds later. On American's ensuing possession, McLinton stripped the ball from Fred Tillman, beginning a fast break that ended with Downing being fouled.
That play was doubly troubling for the Eagles because the foul was the fifth on Wortman.
"We didn't get the job done down the stretch and Brock's fouling out was a big part of it," said American Coach Chris Knoche. "When he's on the floor he has an uncanny timing for making big shots and the players feel that too. When he's not there it's natural for them to let down a little."