COLLEGE PARK -- Lonny Baxter looked like a revival preacher, as he stomped his feet, pumped his fist and screamed "Yeah!" four or five times. Finally, Gary Williams put a bearhug on him.
It was one of the few times Maryland's sophomore center was held down yesterday.
The celebration was as neat as the comeback at Cole Field House, where No. 25 Maryland overcame a mess of adversity and a 17-point deficit to beat N.C. State, 78-73. The Terps scored the game's last 10 points, and it only seemed like all of them came from Baxter, who barreled his way inside for a career-high 31 points.
"I can't say enough," said Williams, the Maryland coach who proceeded to choke up as he talked about Baxter, a 6-foot-8, 265-pounder who, in the wake of Terence Morris' recurring shooting woes, has stepped forward to mount his own campaign for Atlantic Coast Conference honors.
The ugly epic was the fifth win in the last six games for the Terps (16-6, 5-4), who forced a four-way tie for second place in the ACC. Maryland's next two games are at No. 3 Duke and No. 21 Temple, and a loss yesterday would have been a rotten way to prepare for the road.
The Terps had about a half-dozen chances to fold against N.C. State (15-5, 5-4).
Maryland suffered a letdown after a crisp, convincing win over Virginia. Freshman point guard Steve Blake sprained his left ankle in that game, and the secretive injury worsened as he sat out two days of practice. The Terps got off on the wrong foot yesterday as Tahj Holden started in Blake's place and Danny Miller moved to the point.
Morris, the junior forward from Frederick who was voted preseason ACC Player of the Year, missed his first six shots. The Wolfpack made its first seven and sped to a 22-5 lead in the seventh minute. N.C. State rotated the ball and launched an attack of the killer threes, as Maryland would fight back to four or three points, and the Wolfpack would counter with one of its nine three-pointers as the shot clock was about to sound.
Justin Gainey made one of those deflating shots for a 41-29 lead at the break, which had Williams in a brief shouting match with a Maryland fan as the coach walked to the Terps' locker room. When they came back out, Juan Dixon, the fearless sophomore guard from Calvert Hall, fought through cramps.
So how did Maryland scratch out a victory that Williams compared to a 22-point comeback at North Carolina four years ago, and a New Jersey high school semifinal from three decades ago?
"We played great the last 12 minutes at Carolina," Williams said of the 1996 rally. "We never played great today, but we played hard in the last 10 minutes."
Baxter added: "We kept believing in ourselves."
Dixon fronted a defensive effort that forced 15 turnovers in the second half, and Baxter was another inspiration. The native of Silver Spring, who became a starter a year ago yesterday, marked the anniversary with the best game of his career, as he scored 18 of Maryland's first 24 points and finished like a champion.
N.C. State still had a 12-point lead inside seven minutes, and a 73-68 advantage when Baxter came up with what could be the pivotal play of Maryland's season.
The Wolfpack had a 3-on-1 break when Damon Thornton came in from the left side and dunked over Baxter with 2: 44 remaining. Referee John Clougherty whistled a charge on Thornton, the junior forward protested and got a technical, which also happened to be his fifth foul.
Dixon made the two free throws, and a jumper in the lane five seconds later. The N.C. State offense that had been rock solid began to crumble, as Anthony Grundy missed two free throws. It took Maryland nearly 30 seconds to see that Baxter was being checked by 6-0 Gainey, and he made a short turnaround jumper from the right block for the go-ahead basket with 1: 14 left.
Dixon picked Damien Wilkins from behind and Baxter got the lead up to 76-73 on a scoop shot with 39 seconds left. The Wolfpack, which beat the Terps on a late jumper by Gainey a month ago, missed two open threes to tie it, as the magic resided with Maryland this time.
Dixon and Morris were both 5-for-15 from the field, but Williams was glad they kept shooting. Dixon had 17 points, six rebounds and five steals. Morris fumbled away four turnovers, but warmed up and had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Blake struggled defensively, but had eight assists and his first turnover-free game.
Most important, there was the big man in the middle. Baxter, who implored the crowd to raise the decibel level as Maryland began its comeback, brought down 10 rebounds and had career highs for field goals, 14, and blocks, seven.
"Lonny Baxter was sensational," said N.C. State coach Herb Sendek, who was without injured backup center Ron Kelley. "Obviously, we didn't have a good answer for him. The pressure must have gotten to us a great deal. In the last three minutes, we couldn't stop them."
Gainey put up a season-high 21 points, but N.C. State still slipped to its 11th straight loss at Cole. After Maryland had gone from despair to delight, its students stormed the floor en masse for the first time since the Terps beat then-No. 1 North Carolina two years ago.
Morris and Mike Mardesich contributed to that win, but Dixon spoke for the six underclassmen when he was asked if it was the best win in his time at Maryland.
"This is No. 1," Dixon said. "We might have a lot of young guys, but we've got a lot of heart."