COLLEGE PARK - Forty minutes of tense, classic basketball boiled down to one free throw and one huge mistake yesterday at Cole Field House, where the Maryland Terrapins finally were pushed to the brink of defeat.
But the No. 2 Maryland men, who spent most of the final 28 minutes trailing No. 20 Wake Forest, protected their first-place lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference because the Terps refused to blink while escaping with a 90-89 victory before a sellout crowd.
It was an excruciating finish for the Demon Deacons, who, after putting the first major scare into Maryland (23-3, 13-1 ACC) in its house this season, probably still are wondering how they could have let a chance to force overtime slip away.
And Wake Forest small forward Josh Howard, who was spectacular in the second half after teammate Craig Dawson lit up the place with his three-point shooting and put the Terps in a 56-46 halftime hole, probably still is wondering how he could have committed such an error in judgment.
With 1.3 seconds left and the score tied 89-89, Maryland got a gift courtesy of Howard. After grabbing a rebound of a missed 8-foot jumper by Terps guard Juan Dixon, Howard signaled for a timeout that Wake Forest did not have. That resulted in a technical foul, which put Dixon on the foul line and allowed him to deliver the winning point.
After Dixon's missed second foul shot, Wake Forest saw its upset bid fail as guard Broderick Hicks tossed up a long air ball at the buzzer.
This was not the Wake Forest team Maryland has come to own in recent years. This was not the Wake Forest team that rolled over against Duke last week and lost by 29 at home.
This group tore through Maryland's defensive pressure with 62.9 percent shooting in the first half, absorbed a 13-4 Maryland run to begin the second half that cut the Wake lead to 60-59 with 16:54 left, then dug in with the Terps for a tight stretch run. The Demon Deacons (18-10, 8-6) withstood three ties and never led by more than five before they lost their advantage.
The Terps, after taking a 34-33 lead with 8:26 left in the first half, did not take the lead again until a free throw by Byron Mouton gave them an 86-85 edge with 1:51 to go. And it all came down to a miscue by Howard, who simply failed to hear the instructions of Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser.
"I wasn't paying attention in the huddle. I can make up a million excuses, but I just let down my team," said Howard, who had missed the past two weeks with a high ankle sprain and came off the bench to score 18 points and grab a game-high 15 rebounds. Howard also scored the put-back that tied the score with 10.2 seconds left.
"[Howard] allowed us to get two free throws. I'm not going to feel sorry for him. He's a great player, and he played well," said Dixon, who finished with 20 points and six rebounds, despite shooting 6-for-16. "That's something that should have been done in the huddle. It's a bogus play, but next time somebody should inform him that they don't have any timeouts left."
During a season in which they have won every which way, the Terps hit another new note in their next-to-last show at Cole, while winning their 10th straight game, maintaining a one-game lead on Duke in the ACC regular-season title race and becoming the first Maryland team to win 23 of its first 26.
"We've been down before at the half, but that game obviously stayed tight the whole way. That's a great win for us," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team had never trailed at home at the half and had beaten six other conference opponents there by an average of 19 before yesterday.
"A lot of teams wouldn't win that game, but we found a way to win it. I don't care if it's pretty. I don't care what happened. We won the game."
Maryland was a mess defensively in the early going, as the Demon Deacons beat the press and kept feeding Dawson, who entered the game as the league's top three-point shooter. Dawson scored 22 first-half points, bolstered by 6-for-7 shooting from beyond the three-point arc.
Senior center Darius Songaila also gave the Demon Deacons inspired play with 20 points, six rebounds and six assists.
But in the second half, the Terps, who had never given up that many points before the break, dropped back into their half-court defense, took Dawson out of the action and began to attack Wake Forest's matchup zone defense.
Wake Forest shot 33.3 percent in the second half, and went into a 2-for-9 drought over the final 5:25. After being carried by senior center Lonny Baxter, who scored 19 of his team-high 25 in the first half, the cavalry arrived for the Terps.