As the final seconds elapsed, Maryland's D.J. Strawberry was on the floor scraping for the basketball. Within an instant, the senior was on his feet futilely looking to navigate his way off a court filled with euphoric fans, stray chairs and renewed dreams.
The Terrapins had established over the past two weeks that they were worthy of a return to the NCAA tournament. Yesterday's 89-87 come-from-behind victory over fifth-ranked North Carolina before a frenzied Comcast Center crowd showed Maryland players that they can also be a threat when the tournament begins next month.
"We're on the road to the Final Four," forward James Gist said. "We can be a threat to anyone."
Maryland (22-7, 8-6 ACC) has won five consecutive conference games for the first time since its national championship season of 2001-02. A dominating rebounding effort and clutch performances by seniors down the stretch led to Coach Gary Williams's 17th victory over a top-five opponent.
A 2-5 record in the conference did not make the Terrapins panic in late January. So they were determined to remain resolute yesterday, even after the Tar Heels, arguably the nation's deepest team, held a 12-point lead with seven minutes remaining.
With the deficit at 10 points, North Carolina's Bobby Frasor missed an open finger-roll and seven seconds later, at the other end of the court, Maryland's Mike Jones sank a three-pointer. The five-point swing shifted momentum, and it did not come back.
"One layup, one three and we're back in the game," Strawberry said. "We never doubted we were going to win this game."
Strawberry played an all-around splendid game. He finished with a career-high 27 points and added 4 rebounds and 4 assists. But it was the play of Jones, who scored nine of his 18 points in the final six minutes, that proved just as critical.
Maryland's front-court players repeatedly set screens for Jones, who made tight curls into the lane and found enough separation from defenders to release short jump shots. His basket in the lane gave Maryland its first lead at 81-80 with 2 minutes 47 seconds remaining.
In all, Maryland's seniors scored 18 of the team's final 22 points. Senior Ekene Ibekwe stayed in the game despite four fouls and made four free throws in the final two minutes.
A 24-7 run gave the Terrapins a five-point advantage with 56 seconds remaining, but even that did not guarantee victory.
Wayne Ellington, who scored 17 points, made a quick three-pointer. Maryland freshman Greivis Vasquez then collided with a defender and lost the ball out of bounds.
Trailing by two in the final seconds, North Carolina fed the ball to one of its standout freshmen, Brandan Wright, who was fouled as he plowed to the basket.
Wright missed both free throws, which prompted Strawberry to fall to the ground to fight for the ball and much of the crowd to spill onto the court.
"That," Gary Williams said of the atmosphere, "was Cole," referring to Maryland's former home court. It also was a crowd that included Jai Lucas, the talented recruit and son of former Maryland standout John Lucas.
And it was a crowd that did not fall quiet even as the Tar Heels built a 13-point first-half lead.
The Terrapins would not have been in position to make a comeback if not for a tenacious effort rebounding the ball.
They dominated the ACC's best rebounding team, 46-33. Eight Maryland players had at least three rebounds. And in the first half, the Terrapins had as many offensive rebounds (15) as North Carolina had total rebounds.
"Our guards got in there as the game went on," Williams said, "and even if they didn't get the rebound, they were in there taking up space where they couldn't get those running starts for dunks like they did at the start of the second half."
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said that early in the game Maryland "just kicked us as hard as you could be kicked. They went after the ball harder than we did."
The Terrapins left North Carolina (24-5, 10-4) a frustrated team that saw its hopes for a top seed in the NCAA tournament take a hit.
"We lacked focus," forward Reyshawn Terry said. "We keep hitting the same wall. It's making me a little nervous, honestly. This is what happens to us against a team with that mean streak. I guess we are too finesse."
As the season heads into its most important month, Maryland now feels anything is possible.
"A lot of people were criticizing us before," Vasquez said. "Now what?"