Playing its first game in more than two weeks, the 14th-ranked Maryland men's basketball team was sluggish, inconsistent and often ineffective offensively last night. At game's end, once again, the Terrapins found a way to win.

Although center Lonny Baxter was Maryland's most reliable player, it was reserve center Mike Mardesich who made three big plays in the final two minutes to lift the Terrapins to a 69-66 victory over George Mason before 14,500 at Cole Field House.

"I like our team in tough situations," said Maryland Coach Gary Williams, whose team had not played since its 72-66 victory over Kentucky on Dec. 11. "It is obvious we didn't play great tonight or anything like that. But to come back and win a game when several times it looked like we were kind of breaking it open and George Mason came back and made a run, we had to suck it up again and do it again."

There were six lead changes and seven ties in the second half, with neither team able to seize control. Baxter had 20 points and 13 rebounds, but was on the bench for much of the final four minutes after picking up his fourth foul.

However, having Baxter out of the lineup did not hurt Maryland. With the game tied at 62, Mardesich deflected a driving shot by George Mason center George Evans (team highs of 17 points, 11 rebounds). With Maryland leading 65-64, Mardesich made a short turnaround jumper to give the Terrapins breathing room. And with George Mason (5-5) clinging to one final chance, trailing by three, Mardesich stood his ground to help force a turnover with 10 seconds remaining that sealed the victory.

It was Maryland's sixth victory by 10 points or fewer.

George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said he was disappointed with his team's scoring just two points in more than four minutes after Baxter was called for his fourth foul. The Patriots (5-5) had won their previous three games.

"We led 62-60," Larranaga said. "All other circumstances mean absolutely nothing. . . . We didn't execute quite as well as we had to."

Since a 2 1/2-day break for Christmas, Maryland had practiced three times, but its players were far from sharp. The Terrapins had 18 turnovers, including a season-high eight by point guard Steve Blake. They shot 39.3 percent from the field in the second half; Baxter and guards Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas each missed layups.

"It is hard to simulate game situations in practice," said Mardesich, who finished with four points, three steals and two rebounds in 14 minutes. "We have to do a better job of getting ready to play, which has been a problem for us this season."

Said Williams: "We have to get back to playing consistent basketball. We were inconsistent tonight. It is probably my fault for the layoff . . . in terms of scheduling."

Forward Terence Morris had 20 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks and Dixon scored 13 points for Maryland, which has won three consecutive games for the third time. The Terrapins, who have won a nation-best 70 consecutive nonconference home games, have two days off before hosting Maryland-Baltimore County on Thursday.

"I think during those two or three weeks [since the Kentucky game], we got kind of tired practicing against each other," Morris said. "It's still a win. We battled back in the second half and proved we can come back."

At times it appeared Maryland was ready to pull away, particularly midway through the second half. The Terrapins scored six consecutive points, including a jumper and tip-in by Baxter, to take a 49-42 lead. But the Terrapins were unable to hold the lead, failing to score for nearly three minutes.

George Mason responded with a 9-0 run, including a three-point play by Evans that tied the game at 49. At one point, Larranaga turned to his bench, arms folded and sternly said, "Hey, we are not going away."

After an awkward first half in which neither team could find any consistency, Maryland had a 37-36 lead. The Terrapins made 14 of 25 shots in the half (56 percent) and led by as many as six points.

George Mason, meantime, made just 13 of 33 shots in the half (39.4 percent). But the Patriots seemed to score every time they needed to stop a Maryland run. Reserve guard Ahmad Dorsett (Woodbridge High) had three three-pointers in the half, the third coming on an open shot from the right corner, just in front of the Maryland bench, as Williams grabbed his head in anguish.

Terrapins Note: Redshirt freshman Calvin McCall, who joined the team for practice on Dec. 14, was in uniform last night but did not play. McCall, the starting quarterback on Maryland's football team, went to the scorer's table to check in with 50 seconds left in the first half, but the rest of the half was played without a stoppage.

CAPTION: Guard Juan Dixon drops in two of his 13 points for 14th-ranked Maryland.

CAPTION: In matchup of centers, Lonny Baxter, left, has 20 points and 13 rebounds for Maryland, and George Evans has 17 and 11 for George Mason.