Maryland fills its final blank

Dixon, Baxter lift Terps over N.C. State, 64-61

Duke awaits

Wolfpack makes it tough

UM in ACC title game first time in 16 years

March 12, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Saturday Afternoon Nightmare ended at five installments.

Maryland's story line at the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament had developed into a long-running series of horrors, as the Terps had lost the last five years in the semifinals and eight straight there since taking the title in 1984.

After yesterday's 64-61 win over N.C. State, coach Gary Williams won't be nagged about his program coming up short in that round anymore.

"I can't feel satisfaction," Williams said. "Satisfaction would be winning tomorrow."

That would be today's 1 p.m. championship game at the Charlotte Coliseum between No. 20 Maryland (24-8) and No. 3 Duke (26-4), the two best teams in the ACC.

The Terps, who are in for a very full Selection Sunday, are the only conference team to beat the Blue Devils in the last two years. Maryland is 2-5 in ACC title games, and its last win came in the first conference final for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Lefty Driesell, who coached the Terps to that title, was in the house yesterday.

"It feels good," junior forward Terence Morris said about his first ACC championship game. "It's a pretty even match-up. All of us are fatigued."

Second-seeded Maryland had to work the full 40 minutes against sixth-seeded N.C. State. The win featured 21 points from Juan Dixon and a late lift from Lonny Baxter, Maryland's other All-ACC player, but for the most part it was not pleasant viewing.

Williams admitted that he was "scared" in the last four minutes, and Terps fans probably put their hands over their eyes and peered through their fingers until a three-point attempt by Tim Wells that would have forced an overtime rimmed out with four seconds left.

Past ACC greats were honored at the half, among them Maryland's Tom McMillen and N.C. State's Tom Burleson, but this was not a vintage Wolfpack team.

N.C. State (17-12) split the season series with Maryland, but it's a team that lost twice to lowly Clemson. Center Damon Thornton sprained an ankle in the Wolfpack's quarterfinal upset of Virginia, and was replaced by gimpy Ron Kelley in the pivot.

Wells, who more than doubled his season scoring total with three threes, didn't even play on N.C. State's Senior Night.

Maryland blew out an inferior Florida State team in Friday's quarterfinals, and when the Terps took a 19-6 lead into the 13th minute last night, thoughts might have turned toward Duke, which beat Wake Forest, 82-73, in the first semifinal.

The Terps had set a tournament record with 25 assists against the Seminoles, but their crisp movement was muddled when freshman point guard Steve Blake was charged with his second foul in the seventh minute and Baxter got lost in a Wolfpack zone.

Maryland had 13 turnovers in the first half and one basket in the eight minutes before the break, when N.C. State climbed back in it with a 14-0 run.

One of the darker episodes in Maryland's ACC semifinal story came in 1997, when the Wolfpack followed then freshman point guard Justin Gainey to an upset. When Gainey's drive put the Terps in a 41-33 hole last night, reserve Mike Mardesich said "I couldn't believe what was happening."

Said Williams: "The last five minutes of the first half and the first 10 of the second, I was just trying to get our level of play up. I wasn't think about making the final, I was thinking about how bad we were playing."

Maryland tied it with eight straight points, but N.C. State still took a 58-55 lead into the last three minutes. Coach Herb Sendek had gone to a man defense, and Baxter burned it.

The burly sophomore was undercut by Kenny Inge on the offensive board and fell frighteningly hard on his right side with 5: 07 left, but he soared down the stretch.

Maryland took control for good with a pivotal 9-2 run, which saw Baxter establish position on Kelley on the right block and score seven points over four possessions.

"The first time that play worked," Blake said, "so we kept running it over and over until they stopped it. They couldn't."

Blake assisted on three of Maryland's last four baskets, including the one that put the Terps ahead to stay. Morris, who had three blocks to go with 11 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, swatted an attempt by Anthony Grundy to Danny Miller. He fired an outlet pass to Blake, who pushed the ball upcourt to Dixon for a 59-58 lead with 2: 21 left.

Maryland had dealt with tougher competition in the semifinals, particularly two years ago, when it extended a North Carolina Final Four team that had Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison to overtime.

Last night wasn't pretty, but because it came at a juncture that had become so painful to the Terps, it might be their most significant win of the season.

That distinction has been held by the historic Feb. 9 conquest of Duke. A team with no scholarship seniors shrugged off a dismal Maryland record at Cameron Indoor Stadium and is in position to do the same here.

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