DURHAM, N.C. -- There are games that defy logic, games that even the most fertile imagination couldn't fathom. And then there was last night's Maryland-Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was beyond even that.
A crazy season in the Atlantic Coast Conference turned even wackier, as the severely undermanned Terrapins, playing down the stretch without Walt Williams, took the top-ranked Blue Devils into the final seconds before losing, 91-89.
Maryland had two chances to win. But Kevin McLinton, who had given the Terps a one-point lead with 38 seconds left, missed a running 14-footer with seven seconds to go and his team down by one. After Duke's Thomas Hill was fouled and made the first of two free throws, Maryland's Evers Burns threw away the outlet pass. Duke inbounded and time ran out.
"This was not a win tonight; I'm not one to believe in moral victories," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team must now gather itself emotionally for tomorrow's game at Clemson. "However, it was an important night for the Maryland program. It shows that we plan to be better in the future."
Said McLinton, who finished with a career-high 25 points and 11 assists: "The only thing we didn't get was the win. I don't think anybody can say that we didn't outplay Duke."
After hitting 15 of its first 21 shots to take a 36-31 lead, after making an impressive 20 of 31 in the first half, Maryland (10-12, 3-9) saw a six-point halftime deficit become as many as 14 early in the second half. The Terps trailed by eight when Williams fouled out with 6:41 to play, and by 10 a little more than a minute later.
But McLinton refused to let Maryland fold. Time after time, he beat a seemingly tired Grant Hill up the court, slicing in for layups, pulling up for jumpers and even once making a three-point shot. After Tony Lang's rebound dunk with 22 seconds left gave Duke the lead, it came down to McLinton's shot.
"I was supposed to penetrate and shoot or throw it back out to someone for a three," said McLinton, who had scored 16 points in the second half, including six of Maryland's last eight. "I tried to lean in and get the foul. It didn't turn out that way."
After guarding McLinton the whole night, Grant Hill gave way to Brian Davis for the final stop. Davis, long considered one of the ACC's best defenders, stayed with McLinton step for step, and got help from Hill as the Maryland guard went up to shoot.
Told that McLinton thought he might have been fouled, Davis smiled. "It wasn't even close," said Davis, who grew up in Bladensburg, Md., and knows McLinton well. "I didn't touch him. I think Kevin played a great game. When we came out before they took the ball, Coach [Krzyzewski] told me to check him because I was a little fresher. It was a big miss."
But the Terps still had another opportunity. After McLinton's shot hit the far side of the back rim, Thomas Hill got the rebound and was immediately fouled with five seconds left. He made the first, missed the second and Burns grabbed the ball. He saw McLinton momentarily, but then saw Davis and Lang.
"I tried to lead Kevin, and threw it a little hard," said Burns, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds. "It was a tough play."
It was a tough way to lose, but Maryland gained more than just a measure of respect. Consider the Terps had nearly beat Duke with Williams, the ACC's leading scorer, on the bench cheerleading after his 26-point night ended prematurely.
Consider, too, that Duke (21-1, 11-1) has now won 27 straight on rTC its home court and nobody has come this close to beating the Blue Devils here in awhile. Krzyzewski considered all that and came away even more impressed with the Terps than he was before.
"What a sensational game by Maryland," said Krzyzewski, whose team was hurt down the stretch by Grant Hill's foul trouble. "It was a gutsy team performance by the kids and their coaching staff. I think that Maryland played just so well. I could say that we were horrible, but I don't think that was the case. Maryland just played great."
The Terps, one of the worst shooting teams in the ACC, finished 36 of 55 from the field, including a combined 19 of 27 by Williams (9-13) and McLinton (10-14). But what hurt them last night was eight of 20 misses from the free-throw line. What also hurt them was Christian Laettner.
Despite picking up his third and fourth fouls early in the second half, the 6-11 senior continually took it to Maryland. Laettner finished with 30 points and eight rebounds but knew how close the Blue Devils had come to losing.
"There were a lot of things we didn't do, and you have to give Maryland credit," said Laettner. "I guess I was a little surprised the way they came back. We probably relaxed a little when Walt Williams fouled out. But we showed our poise and we made some shots."
It wouldn't have mattered, had McLinton's shot fallen. But it didn't, and the biggest upset of this ACC season, this college basketball season, wouldn't happen.
"One more shot," said Gary Williams. "It couldn't fall."
Crazier things have happened. But not too many of them.