COLLEGE PARK -- The start was sentimental.
The middle was brutal.
The conclusion was predictable, as No. 5 Maryland never trailed and ran past Clemson, 77-60, before 14,500 in its home finale at Cole Field House last night. Senior Night turned into the Steve Francis show, as the junior guard excelled at both ends and left his fellow students asking for "one more year."
It was not Maryland's most focused effort, but the Terps were aided by telling 10-0 runs in each half and three technicals on the Tigers. The game was filled with hard fouls, air balls and bodies on the floor, and there were times it resembled a Vince McMahon production instead of a college basketball game.
"We had to win that game with our defense, because our offense wasn't any good," coach Gary Williams said, as a field-goal percentage of .403 was the lowest the Terps have had in a victory this season.
Maryland could meet Clemson again March 5 in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C. The Terps, who will be seeded second, improved to 12-3 in the league and 24-4 overall, as their fifth straight win set a school record for regular-season victories.
The proceedings began with bows for the five seniors, including hobbled center Obinna Ekezie, who tore his Achilles' tendon in practice Feb. 9. Williams gave Norman Fields and Brian Watkins their first college starts -- on national television, no less -- as one of the nation's premier talents came off the bench for the first time this season.
Francis entered in the second minute and proceeded to infuriate the Tigers and their coach, Larry Shyatt. He had 32 points, the most by a Terp since Keith Booth had 33 in an ACC tournament game two years ago. Francis is the ACC leader in steals, and he matched his season high with six.
His drive in the open court in the seventh minute led to a pair of technicals on Clemson and helped Maryland move out to a 16-8 lead. Four minutes later, during the initial 10-0 run, which got the spread up to 28-14, his hustle broke up a transition chance for the Tigers and led Shyatt to kick the scorer's table.
With 7: 21 remaining, his steal and dunk upped the difference to 65-49 and triggered a cheer from the student sections behind the benches:
"One more year! One more year!"
They worry that Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes weren't the only Terps starters who made their final appearance at Cole. A Takoma Park resident who considered turning pro after an All-American junior-college campaign at Allegany College last spring, Francis has denied reports that he will turn pro after this season.
In the locker room afterward, Francis said he's "99.9 percent" certain that he'll play for the Terps next season.
"Right now," Francis said, "I'm coming back to Maryland next year."
One of the 10 finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year Award, Francis made four of his five three-pointers and 11 of 15 shots overall. Several of his seven other baskets came on breakaway dunks, and the sweetest crystallized the Terps' pressing, running style.
Stokes tipped a Clemson pass to Francis, who shoved the ball ahead. The point guard lobbed a pass above the rim, and Francis dunked it for a 69-52 lead.
"Clemson really focused on our seniors," Francis said. "I was the one open."
Ah yes, the seniors.
Profit shook off a slow start that included a botched attempt at a reverse dunk in transition, finished with 17 points and said it was a "weird Senior Night."
"It didn't feel like Senior Night, because we had to win the game," he said, alluding to Maryland's quest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. "All those technicals, all those fouls, it wasn't pretty. Clemson got us in an aggressive mode, and we wanted to send a message that we weren't going to be pushed around."
Stokes, who leads the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio, had nine to four. He left Cole wearing a cowboy hat, and a serious compliment from Shyatt.
"I want to apologize for all the other coaches and media who've done a terrible injustice to Terrell Stokes," Shyatt said. "They have completely overlooked him and what he's done for this Maryland team."
Stokes was among the defenders who threw a blanket over Terrell McIntyre, the senior guard who needed 13 shots to get 12 points. Eighth-place Clemson (15-13, 4-11) made 35.8 percent (19-for-53) of its shots, as Maryland lowered its ACC-leading field-goal percentage defense to .383.
The Terps went 13-1 in their home schedule, the only loss coming Jan. 3 against No. 1 Duke. They can reach 13 conference wins for the first time in their history Saturday, when they conclude the regular season at Florida State.
Next for Terps
Opponent: Florida State
Site: Leon County Civic Center, Tallahassee, Fla.
When: Saturday, 1: 30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Pub Date: 2/25/99