COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland Terrapins probably would have beaten the nation's third-ranked team last night at Cole Field House if they hadn't missed half of their 18 free throws.
And battled foul trouble throughout the game.
And committed 20 turnovers, wasting the advantage of having forced 23 turnovers.
As it was, they played Clemson down to the final seconds of a four-point loss in a game that buzzed with big-time electricity.
"I'm not real good at losing," Terps coach Gary Williams said, "but I'm proud of our team. We went at it pretty good out there."
The loss was only the second of the season for the Terps in what has become a gift of a season to the state's basketball fans, an energized and wholly unexpected fascination.
The result wasn't what Williams, the players or alumni wanted, but the Terps' performance was further evidence that they're far more substantial and interesting than anyone expected.
They actually played better last night than they did in beating North Carolina State and North Carolina in their prior two games.
OK, maybe they didn't play better. But they played tougher.
Tougher than they have in any game in several years.
They needed it to stay close to a Clemson team that is deep, disciplined and cohesive, a withering test, worthy of a high ranking.
The Terps were giving away height, weight and depth, but still almost won.
"We could have shot better, and we certainly hurt ourselves at the line," Williams said. "But our team has a lot of guts. I'm really pleased with our progress even though we lost."
The sound of the famously competitive Williams so upbeat after a defeat is the sound of a coach who has fallen in love with his team.
As well he should.
Down 12 points early, with Keith Booth and Obinna Ekezie in foul trouble, the Terps had every reason to cave in.
They stepped up their pressure defense, forced a series of turnovers and rallied to make the game close.
Asked after the game what he thought of Clemson's defense, Williams bristled.
"Both teams played great defense," he said.
It was the Terps' defense that carried them back from a 23-11 deficit. Laron Profit had five steals in the first half alone.
"Maryland is as good at that pressure as any team in the country," said Clemson coach Rick Barnes, whose team improved to 15-1.
The Terps finished the first half with a 10-4 run that pulled them within one point at 32-31, finishing with a dunk by Profit off yet another steal.
A sellout crowd was roaring loud enough to shake the backboards.
"It was hard to believe this is only the second week in January, considering the excitement and intensity of this game," Barnes said.
Making the Terps' comeback even more impressive was the fact that they missed six free throws in a row as they rallied.
The Terps haven't shot free throws particularly well all season, averaging some 65 percent, but these misses were especially hurtful.
"All we can do is go back and keep working on them," Williams said.
The Terps pulled ahead early in the second half, 40-37, on a three-point play by Booth and a drive by Profit.
Having blown a lead and fallen behind on the road, Clemson, with three sophomore starters, was on the verge of showing its age.
But with Barnes subbing in waves, slowing wearing down the Terps, the Tigers came back. The score was tied at 41, 45 and 51 for the last time, and the Tigers then broke things open with seven straight points, starting with a three-pointer from Terrell McIntyre.
"Our tough nonleague schedule [against Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota and South Carolina] has prepared us for conference play," Barnes said.
After two Booth free throws, another McIntyre three-pointer pushed the lead to eight with 2: 49 to play. The noisy crowd fell silent.
Even then the Terps were resourceful enough to come back, thanks to three-pointers by Sarunas Jasikevicius and Terrell Stokes.
Clemson hung on thanks to center Tom Wideman, a 51-percent free throw shooter who nailed two with 25 seconds left.
"We did a good job and fouled the right guy, but he made them," Williams said.
The loss was the first of the ACC season for the Terps, with another likely to come Sunday at Wake Forest, the best team in the league, if not the country.
But a two-game losing streak is hardly reason for panic, not when the losses are against the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country.
"Let's keep perspective on this thing," Williams said.
The Terps were picked to finish eighth in the ACC this season, but they brought a 14-1 record and a No. 11 national ranking into last night's game.
They played tough enough to beat a lot of teams.
Their gym was packed and hot and loud, the place to be in college basketball on this Wednesday night.
Pub Date: 1/16/97