WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem, N.C. -- There was a time earlier in his college basketball career when Randolph Childress wondered what would have happened if the news at the other end of the telephone conversation had been different, if he had wound up playing for Maryland instead of Wake Forest.
The conversation, between Childress and Maryland coach Gary Williams, took place in spring 1990. Childress was about to finish his senior year at Flint Hill (Va.), and the Terrapins were facing NCAA sanctions for what would have been the player's first two seasons in College Park.
"I really loved Maryland and Gary Williams, but I knew it was going to be tough for them to have a winning program being on probation," Childress, now a fifth-year senior, recalled yesterday. "I thought it was going to take a long time for them to turn it around. It was only after it happened that I narrowed my choices down to Seton Hall and Wake Forest."
Things have turned out quite nicely for both the 6-foot-2 guard from Clinton, Md., and the Terrapins. In a career that was interrupted for an entire season by a serious knee injury, Childress needs 64 points to become the school's fourth 2,000-point scorer and 99 to become its all-time leading backcourt scorer.
Childress will try to add to that total tonight, but more importantly, he will try to help No. 14 Wake Forest (15-5, 6-4) end a string of three losses to seventh-ranked Maryland (19-4, 9-2) in a 9 p.m. Atlantic Coast Conference game at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
"I think it's a big game for us confidence-wise," said Childress, who leads the Demon Deacons in scoring with 18.6 points a game and in assists at 5.0. "It's not the end of the world for either team, but we need the win to get back in the race, and Maryland needs it to stay in first place."
Childress helped the Demon Deacons stay in the top half of the ACC on Saturday. After missing an ill-advised three-point shot at the buzzer in a two-point loss at Florida State earlier in the week, Childress hit a 14-footer in the waning seconds of a 62-61 win at Duke. It was the second straight year Childress beat the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
His mini-career against Maryland has produced as many lowlights as highlights. After sitting out the 1991-92 season because of reconstructive knee surgery, Childress returned as a sophomore and scored what was then a career-high 30 points against Maryland. But the past two seasons have not gone well against the Terps, for either Childress or the Demon Deacons.
Last year, Childress was a combined 7-for-23 shooting in a pair of defeats, including a career-low four-point game in which he was 1-for-8 from the field. Adding injury to ignominy, Childress was nearly knocked out diving for a ball in the first game and his nose was broken accidentally by teammate Tim Duncan's elbow.
Last month, Childress was not much of a factor down the stretch in a 76-66 loss at Cole Field House.
"I can't explain it, except that some teams play you a different way," said Childress, who scored 15 against the Terps in the first meeting but was only three of 10 from three-point range and went without a free throw for the first time since his freshman season. "Duke plays you straight up man-to-man. With Maryland, it's more a help defense where you're not facing one man, it's more like 1 1/2 or two."
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "I wish there was a reason, but we've been fortunate that he hasn't been hot. He's certainly had his shots. There's nothing special we can take credit for. He's gotten 20 in a half this year, and he can do it [tonight]. You have to hold your breath and hope you give the guy guarding him enough help."
Childress has adjusted his game to fit whatever style Wake Forest has played. When he first arrived, the Demon Deacons were more geared to getting the ball inside to Chris King and Rodney Rogers. Since the middle of last season, they have become more balanced, with Childress outside and sophomore center Duncan inside.
"He's the consummate team player," Wake coach Dave Odom said yesterday. "He'll do whatever the coaching staff asks. He's comfortable in a number of different styles. But the big thing is that when you put the ball in Randolph's hands, usually something good happens."
Usually, but not always. After Childress missed what appeared to be a forced shot against the Seminoles last week in Tallahassee, Odom said the play broke down around the senior guard. Odom said he met with Childress when the team got back to campus to clarify what he wanted in that last-possession situation.
"The play will always be designed for Randolph, the ball will always be in his hands, but the shot might be somebody else's to take," said Odom. "It was almost like [he thought] I wanted him to take every last shot."
Childress has the confidence that he will succeed in any situation. But he also has become a realist during his career at Wake Forest. He has come to understand that his goals of winning an ACC title or a national championship might go unfulfilled.
He has come to appreciate whatever his life brings, something he learned during his most difficult time as a Demon Deacon. It happened during a hospital stay for reconstructive knee surgery after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a pickup game in the spring of his fresh man year. He was unsure about the future, and thought of himself as a victim.
Until he looked at the patient next to him.
"I was saying to myself, 'Why me?' " recalled Childress. "But the man next to me -- he was probably in his 40s -- had just lost a leg. That put it all in perspective. I can't mope or cry or ever let the game get me down."