COLLEGE PARK – — Finally, Maryland could exhale.
Finally, the Terrapins — who have had a propensity this season for losing close games and missing foul shots — could relax, knowing they overcame both troubling tendencies in the same game. Finally, free throws became Maryland's friend instead of foe.
The Terps, who entered Saturday's game last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in free-throw percentage (63.1 percent), converted 12 of 15 in the final four minutes to preserve a much-needed 79-77 victory over Clemson.
Maryland's win provided reason for its fans to exhale as well. The Terps (12-7, 2-3 ACC) — who had lost six of seven earlier games decided by single digits — were trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2008.
The team, which went undefeated at home in ACC play last season, had dropped its first two conference games at Comcast Center. Eager to begin making a case for an NCAA tournament berth, the Terps may not have been able to afford a third consecutive conference defeat at home.
"It was real important," said senior swingman Cliff Tucker (15 points), who said the Terps had a meeting at the team hotel Friday night and discussed how this was a pivotal part of the season.
"We're kind of at a crossroads right now," he said.
Senior guard Adrian Bowie said the players talked in the meeting about postseason ambitions.
"Me, Dino (Gregory) and Cliff went to the NIT our freshman year," he said. "We don't want to be there again. It was horrible."
Maryland led by as many as 13 in the first half. But consecutive baskets by senior center Jerai Grant pulled the Tigers (13-6, 2-3) to within 61-60 with 5:55 to go.
The game stayed close and Sean Mosley — who did not start for the first time this season but scored nine points in 20 minutes — made two free throws with 10 seconds left to extend Maryland's lead to 78-75. Clemson could not find an open 3-pointer and went inside for a dunk by Devin Booker to cut the deficit to 78-77.
That's when a foul shot almost did Maryland in — but not in the usual way.
Tucker, fouled intentionally with 1.6 seconds left, made the first and missed the second on purpose to try to kill the clock. But the ball caromed out of bounds, and Clemson had time to set up for one desperation heave by senior guard Demontez Stitt (20 points) as the game ended.
"I've never seen that in my life. I don't know how it got out of bounds," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.
The Terps have spent hours at practices shooting free throws. "Oh my goodness, all practice long," said Gregory, a co-captain.
But Tucker said he had never actually practiced missing a free throw so that the ball bounces high in the air and remains in bounds.
"I was kind of nervous doing it. I didn't want to shoot an air ball," Tucker said.
Maryland ran its offense far more effectively than in a 17-point loss to Virginia Tech in its last outing that was its worst defeat at Comcast Center. The Terps looked inside more often to center Jordan Williams and to Gregory, who frequently kicked the ball out to open shooters.
"We are definitely an inside-out team," said Bowie. "If Jordan can command a double-team like he usually does, we have easier opportunities to take jump shots or drive to the basket."
The Terps converted 8-of-14 3-point attempts. Their six 3s in the first half — in which they built a four-point lead — were a season high.
Williams (16 points, 11 rebounds) recorded his 13th straight double double, eclipsing the team mark of 12 set by Len Elmore in 1974.
Maryland shuffled its lineup for fifth time this season, starting freshman Hawk Palsson for the first time.
"I just thought Hawk would give us energy at the start of the game," Gary Williams said.
The key — perhaps unexpectedly — was foul shots.
Asked about Maryland's free-throw shooting, Bowie – who shot 7-of-9 on foul shots – took a deep breath as if he were still on the line.
"That's why we won the game," he said, looking as relieved as happy.