COLLEGE PARK -- This was a game that, in recent years, a University of Maryland basketball team might have lost. This was a game that, a year ago, Towson State might have won.
It was a one-point game yesterday at Cole Field House with 5 minutes, 46 seconds remaining. The Terrapins were ahead, 68-67. The Tigers, with Terrance Alexander trying to complete a three-point play, had a free throw to tie.
"That game was up for grabs," Maryland coach Gary Williams said later.
"We had a lot of chances," said Towson State forward Chuck Lightening.
But the Terps didn't allow the game to turn into a replay of their loss to Coppin State two years ago. Getting big plays down the stretch from reserves Chris Kerwin and Cougar Downing, along with help from Towson State, Maryland escaped with an 83-76 victory.
"The most important thing is that we won," said senior guard Walt Williams, who led the Terps with a game-high 29 points. "When they cut it to one, I got the fellows together in the huddle and told them the worst thing that could happen was the game would be tied. There was no reason to panic."
A couple of blocked shots by Kerwin and a three-point shot by Downing helped Maryland (6-1) open a 75-69 lead with a little more than four minutes left. A free throw by Williams made it 76-69 with 3:32 left.
Lightening, who led the Tigers with 25 points, hit a three-point play to bring Towson State (2-5) within four. But the Tigers, who have played without Devin Boyd since the senior guard fractured his elbow in the season opener, failed to score on their next four possessions.
"I can't be displeased with our effort, both offensively and defensively," said Towson State coach Terry Truax. "But I don't think we were very smart when we needed to be."
After Downing's three-point shot, Kerwin blocked Alexander in the lane, and senior guard Terrance Jacobs air-balled a three-point try. Though Maryland struggled offensively as well -- Williams missed three of four free throws, Kevin McLinton missed a reverse layup and Vince Broadnax was called for traveling -- Towson State couldn't take advantage.
It was typical of what has happened to the Tigers against better teams this season: fall behind early, catch up and lose. Towson State has played Colorado, North Carolina and Maryland as close as or, as was the case yesterday, closer than it has Mount St. Mary's and UMBC.
Asked about being in position to win, Truax said: "Our kids sometimes have trouble comprehending that. They have to recognize that every game has five to seven turning points, and you have to be able to execute under adverse circumstances at those points. We didn't today, and it cost us."
It nearly cost Maryland. After leading by 44-39 at halftime, the Terps built their lead to 64-52 on a pair of free throws by Evers Burns with 11 minutes left. But Garfield Smith fouled out with 8:19 left, and Burns, who finished with 16 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, was gone with a little less than five minutes to go.
As the small crowd (6,814) got nervous, and as Gary Williams got more frustrated while the Terps went more than eight minutes without a basket, Lightening led the Tigers on a 15-4 run. After Alexander missed the free throw that would have tied the game, Towson State had a chance to take the lead after a Maryland turnover. But sophomore John James, with no pressure, shuffled his feet in the backcourt.
A baseline dunk by Williams gave the Terps a 70-67 lead, but two free throws by Alexander (17 points) cut it back to one. After a drive by McLinton on a screen by Kerwin, Lightening was stripped by Broadnax. Downing hit the wide-open three-pointer, and the Tigers were never heard from again.
"That was a big shot for them," said Lightening. "It got the crowd going, and it was hard for us to come back after that. We didn't keep our composure."
Maryland kept itself together, barely. Gary Williams didn't want to hear anything about the team's 10-day layoff for final exams because Towson State had been coming off a weeklong break. For the first time this season, he was pleased with the outcome, but not with the effort.
"You've got to give Towson State credit," he said. "They made us look bad."
NOTES: Maryland plays the second half of an ECC set when it plays Rider at home tomorrow night. . . . Towson State is off until Saturday, when it plays Southern Methodist in Dallas. Yesterday's game was the first of a 10-game road trip for the Tigers, who don't return home until Jan. 27 against Mount St. Mary's.