(Published in Daily News, March 23, 1985)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - It is the first weekend of spring, and the three Villanova kids are still playing basketball.

They have done this before.

Eddie Pinckney, eyes bulging, mouth agape, rising straight up and then, somehow, hanging ...

Dwayne McClain, eternally able to find the baseline spots from which to fling his odd, shotputting jump shot ...

Gary McLain, fooling himself into thinking he can run a ballclub in the NCAA's while Pearl Washington, Dave Rivers and Gary Grant sit home ...

For the third time in their four years, the Villanova seniors are in a regional final, and only their colleagues at Georgetown and North Carolina can say the same. For convenience's sake, they call it the Final Eight, but there's no ring to that, not really. Failure is implied; it takes the Final Four, who play by themselves in one place, to get the nation to sit down and pay attention. "Final Four," McLain said. "That's a special place."

To get there, they have to beat North Carolina here Sunday. Not impossible, but not especially likely either. But the Wildcats earned that chance with a jagged but purposeful 46-43 win over Maryland last night. They shot a halting 36.9 percent from the field and repeatedly hallucinated from the foul line, but they acted as if they knew exactly where they were.

"These kids, they drive me crazy sometimes," Rollie Massimino said. "We've been through a lot of rough times. But Eddie's become a real leader, the things he does with the other kids. Dwayne's been in and out with me over the years, but he keeps coming up big in this tournament. Gary - there's lots of point guards in the Big East with more talent. I keep telling him, 'You're not Oscar Robertson. You can't pound it and go inside and score. You're not Oscar, you know.' But the kids listen to him and love him, and, man, he really wants the ball. After a while, what can you say?"

The same things, of course. Villanova's is a program built on the conviction that like-minded players, functioning together, can circumvent talent gaps and control big basketball games. It doesn't work when the Wildcats play the glamour teams, like North Carolina in '82 and Houston in '83 and Georgetown and St. John's this year. But it works well enough, every year, to bring the Wildcats to the very top of their potential in this tournament, in which the seniors are now 8-3.

Last night they faced a Maryland team that had beaten them, 77-74, Jan. 27. Several aspects of that game galled Massimino, but none more than the 30 points scored by the Terps' Len Bias, who went on to become the Atlantic Coast Conference's Most Valuable Player. That is heresy at Villanova, which builds everything on a matrix of over 20 defenses. The Wildcats think they can stop people, as long as the people are not named Ewing, Mullin, Jordan or Olajuwon.

"We had three days to prepare for that game," McLain said. "We had all week to prepare for this one. You figure we should win if we have that much time."

The coaches huddled around their videotape player all week. They saw that the 6-8 Bias lives on lob passes for dunks. When those aren't available, he wheels to the baseline, jumps high and straight, and sends down unblockable jumpers.

When that isn't happening, Maryland goes to 6-8 guard Adrian Branch, an irresistible one-on-one driver. But Villanova noticed there was no Plan C for the Terps. Center Derrick Lewis hardly gets the ball, and point guard Keith Gatlin, in and out of Lefty Driesell's good graces all year, doesn't like to shoot. It is a stereotyped, predictable offense.

"The motto was no lobs," Massimino said. "Everybody on the bench was saying it."

On the game's third possession, Bias got it on the left wing and tried to go baseline against the zone. Harold Pressley gave him a stop sign. He went back to the middle and fired a dirigible that McLain rebounded.

Next time, Bias went to the middle and found Pinckney in his way. Another miss.

Three more would follow before Bias cashed a fastbreak basket with 2:08 left in the half. He pointed upward, for the lob, and turned angrily when his teammates didn't see it. He saw Pressley on the left baseline, McClain on the right, Pinckney in between. He was not having fun.

"I just didn't go for many lobs," Bias said later with a shrug. "And Pinckney got in my way in the lane. He didn't do that much in the first game."

"Len was getting frustrated," Pressley said. "He was firing bad shots. And Eddie made him think. Eddie got to him early, and that was important."

"And on the lobs," McClain said, "we just bodied him up. Just put some body on him and not give him room."

"And I was playing Gatlin tight," McLain added. "I wasn't going to give him the room to throw the pass, even though he was five inches (at least) taller than me."

At the end, Bias ceded all offensive involvement to Branch, who surged for a game-high 21 points. Bias, a 19.3 point scorer this season on 53 percent shooting, dissolved to 4-for-13 and eight points - the first time in 53 appearances that he couldn't get to double figures.

Still, there were problems. Villanova spent the first half in its familiar, none-of-us-really-want-to-shoot offense. Its guards would eventually go 2-for-15. The situation called for more than just a well-laid plan. It called for Pinckney, and you could hear Pinckney's answer for miles.

"He's quiet," Dwight Wilbur said with a smile. "You know, E-Z Ed. But he's grown into the kind of great player that every team needs."

Pinckney pretzeled his way to a basket that put Villanova ahead 25-20. He hit another one from the baseline and somehow suspended himself above Maryland big men for another hoop. He kept going to the line, and three times he rebounded missed Wildcat free throws.

"It reminded me of before the tournament, when I told him he had to get going," assistant coach Steve Lappas said. "He just told me to check his NCAA stats."

"Eddie acts like he knows this is it," Massimino said.

So the Wildcats rode Pinckney to a 43-36 lead, at which point Massimino summoned the delay game. But Driesell was ready. He sent out Jeff Baxter to keep the ball away from McLain, the most consistent foul shooter.

"Quick little Baxter was out there talking to me," McLain said. "He was also getting in my jock."

That meant Wilbur and Harold Jensen had to handle the ball for a while, so Massimino called time out to adjust. "Make yourself available, Gizz," Pinckney told McLain. He did, but Pressley and Jensen kept missing foul shots.

So it was back to defense again, and rebounding (Villanova won the boards 40-29), and one last Maryland chance to cut the lead to one with 20 seconds left. But with Bias invisible, Villanova finally collapsed on Branch. Gatlin had to take a 20-foot wing jumper. It only traveled 18.

And Villanova will continue to play basketball during the first weekend of spring.

Can April be far behind?