COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland was as sloppy as it has been all season last night, but it is also one win away from its best basketball start ever.
The sluggish Terps held Georgia Tech to one basket over a telling eight-minute stretch and beat the Yellow Jackets, 77-62, before a sellout crowd of 14,500 at Cole Field House. Coach Gary Williams' 10th team improved to 5-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 17-2 overall.
The Terps trailed with less than nine minutes left, but the Yellow Jackets fell apart down the stretch while Maryland converted enough chances to escape an upset.
Maryland has never had an 18-2 record, but the nation's No. 4 team can reach that milestone Sunday at Clemson. None of the current Terps has ever won there, where seniors Obinna Ekezie, Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes have lost three straight.
Last night's win gave Maryland its first four-game regular-season winning streak in the ACC since 1995. The Terps strengthened their hold on second place in the ACC. Sixth-place Georgia Tech (11-7, 2-4) lost for the fourth time in five games.
The Terps blew an 11-point lead and fell behind at 58-57 with 8: 24 left, but that was the only deficit they faced all night. Maryland responded over the next four minutes with an 11-2 run that coincided with a crucial cold spell for Georgia Tech, as the Yellow Jackets, who committed 26 turnovers, had just two baskets the rest of the way.
The surge began with a pair of goahead free throws with 8: 13 left by Terence Morris.
"It's safe to say we don't win without him," Williams said of his sophomore forward, who had 20 points, 10 rebounds and four steals -- all game-high totals.
Maryland had trouble with a Yellow Jackets zone all night, but in the decisive run Profit (15 points) solved it with a three-pointer from the right wing. After Georgia Tech center Alvin Jones scored against pressure, Mike Mardesich scored on a put-back and Profit in transition for a 67-59 spread with 4: 21 left. The Terps had difficulty extending the lead, but Georgia Tech couldn't get any closer than seven the rest of the way.
The Terps had a 50-39 lead with 12: 29 left on a pair of Profit free throws that completed a 7-0 run, but the Yellow Jackets went on an 18-6 run that included six straight points on the end. Freshman point guard Tony Akins silenced the insults of the crowd with a three-pointer and Jason Collier's free throws gave Georgia Tech its first lead, at 57-56 with 8: 24 left.
Playing for the first time since a monumental win last Thursday at North Carolina, Maryland found it difficult to find the proper focus, and its mindless play peaked early in the second half.
Clinging to a four-point lead, Steve Francis was yanked by an angry Williams after his hot-dogging on a breakaway opportunity produced nothing. Alone in the open court, he tossed a pass off the backboard to the trailing Profit, who couldn't convert with Jon Babul on his back with 18: 56 left.
Profit lost the ball out of bounds, Williams sat down Francis with some words of discouragement and replaced him with freshman Juan Dixon.
"We got careless a couple times and it cost us," Williams said, who addressed Francis' lob. "Where that came from I don't know. I think that came from the Kenner league. We can't do that. There are never any guarantees."
Francis, who had 14 points but was 4-for-12 from the field and had a season-high six turnovers, showed only limited remorse. "I'll take the blame for it but I'd do it again," the junior college transfer said. "I throw that pass every day in practice. He [Williams] had to take me out of the game."
Less than four minutes later, Dixon had the ball in transition when he passed to a wide-open Jason Floyd. Unfortunately, Floyd plays for Georgia Tech.
As boneheaded as their play was with the ball, the Terps kept hounding the Yellow Jackets and used an 11-2 spurt to get that 50-39 lead.
Maryland forced 14 turnovers in the first half, but the Terps also had difficulty with Georgia Tech's defensive strategy. Bobby Cremins prefers to play straight man-to-man, just like Williams, but he started in a 2-3 zone, then went man and to a triangle-and-two.
The Terps had difficulty with all of them. Francis was slowed by 5-10 T. J. Vines and the home side missed eight three-pointers before it made one. Maryland got plenty of good looks, but looked indecisive, perhaps mindful of the presence of 6-11 Jones, who averages 4.4 blocks.
During one break, a Georgia Tech assistant coach said "make them [Maryland] think, make them play in the half court." The advice worked. The Terps made just 41.7 percent of their attempts in the first 20 minutes.
The Yellow Jackets had great trouble just getting off shots in the first nine minutes, when they lost possession 10 times and had just two baskets. Eventually, they began to protect the ball, beat the Terps' pressure for some openings on the wings and got within 35-31 at the break.
Maryland had a 22-14 lead, when Georgia Tech got back in it on a pair of turnaround jumpers that went its way. Ekezie missed in the lane for what would have been a 10-point lead, and Jones hit his from the left baseline with 6: 21 left in the half. It triggered an 11-5 run for the Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech limited the Terps' transition game, which had one highlight. After Jones' big jumper, he tried one from the foul line that missed badly. Francis got the ball on the break and flipped it to the right wing to Profit, who lobbed it right back to him for a rare easy basket.
Next for Terps
Site: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C.
When: Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)