CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- For the second straight game, Maryland got stuck in neutral.
Fortunately for the Terps, they had a 20-point lead on Virginia when they stopped playing this time.
Four days after No. 5 Maryland lapsed into an 18-point loss at home against Duke, the class of the Atlantic Coast Conference, they had fits against the chumps, the Cavaliers. The Terps turned a blowout into a three-point game with 72 seconds left, before holding on for a 71-66 victory.
Maryland (14-2, 2-1) moved into a second-place tie in the ACC with North Carolina, while Virginia (9-6, 0-3) remained the only team winless in conference games.
"It shouldn't be that way. We should have used our killer instinct," senior wing Laron Profit said. "We should have started the second half with a run and taken them out of it completely."
The Terps were ahead 32-12 late in the first half but couldn't dispose of an inferior opponent that is down to six scholarship players. Coach Pete Gillen's gang that couldn't shoot straight missed 13 consecutive field-goal attempts during an 11-minute stretch in the first half when Maryland went on a 13-0 run.
That bulge shrunk to 67-64 with 1: 12 left, when walk-on Jason Dowling made two free throws. Maryland made enough foul shots of its own down the stretch to hold on, but coach Gary Williams did not sound satisfied.
"It's hard to adjust to a team like that, but the other side of it is that we had 20 turnovers," Williams said. "We're the team that's supposed to force the turnovers. Virginia's quick, yeah, but we're a better ball-handling team than we showed tonight."
The first trip to the line of Dowling's career was set up by the last of senior point guard Terrell Stokes' three turnovers. The Terps unexpectedly found themselves in a half-court game, and they had many listless possessions in the second half, when they were 9-for-23 from the field.
They attempted 48 shots, matching their season low.
At one point, 6-foot-10 center Obinna Ekezie was marked by 6-5, 190-pound Adam Hall, but Maryland's emphasis on getting the ball inside on a smaller foe didn't always reap the expected benefits.
Compounding matters, for the first time in 110 games, since a win over Texas in the 1995 NCAA tournament, Maryland didn't make a three-pointer.
Ekezie was charged with his fourth foul with 11: 08 remaining, and at one point Williams went with two forwards and three guards to counter the Cavaliers. The home team was an awful mess offensively in the first half, but it beat the Terps on dribble penetration too often in the second.
Maryland had a minor scare when Steve Francis, its extraordinary junior guard, turned his right ankle coming back to earth after missing one of his three-point shots with 1: 05 left in the first half. He limped off the court, but played 19 minutes in the second half and finished with 14 points, six assists and six rebounds.
Francis got the ball at the end, after the Terps had frittered away much of what had been a 14-point spread with as many minutes remaining. The Cavaliers used a 9-1 run -- including an unforgivable put-back on a free throw -- to cut it to 46-40. Maryland assumed a 62-52 lead with 5: 43 left, when Francis fed Profit for the Terps' last basket.
Maryland made nine of 15 free-throw attempts down the stretch. Profit missed two with 18 seconds left, giving the Cavaliers a chance to tie it with a three, but they didn't get any baskets in the last two minutes themselves. The outcome wasn't secure until freshman Juan Dixon made two foul shots with 3.4 seconds left.
Ekezie and Terence Morris had 17 points apiece for Maryland, but the sophomore forward's string of consecutive free throws made ended at 21.
Willie Dersch made three three-pointers and scored 15 for Virginia, and freshman Chris Williams had 14 on 6-for-10 shooting, but he was an aberration, as the Cavaliers connected on a season-low 33.3 percent of their shots.
Despite his lack of able bodies, Gillen has installed an up-tempo style, but Williams had an inkling he might try to slow the pace.
The Cavaliers did, but it backfired initially, as the Terps turned a tiny 5-4 lead into an 18-4 bulge in the 12th minute.
"We were shook early," Gillen said. "We wanted to be deliberate, but we just couldn't score."
The first bad omen for Maryland came near the end of its 13-0 run, when the Terps lost possession three times in just 52 seconds. They proceeded to play down to Virginia's level, and while Williams pointed to his team's No. 5 ranking in to say there was no reason to panic after the Duke loss, the Terps did little more than survive their visit here.
Has Profit ever been disappointed by a win?
"Sometimes," he said.
Was he disappointed after this one?
Next for Terps
Opponent: N.C. State
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
When: Sunday, 1: 30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Pub Date: 1/08/99