Fourward

Baxter, Maryland surge past Stanford, into first Final Four

`We aren't satisfied'

Terps hit nine threes

fourth meeting with Duke awaits Saturday

Ncaa Tournament

March 25, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. - They were strangely calm and loose during their pre-game shootaround at Arrowhead Pond. They joked and sang loudly as fans filed into the arena and took note of the Maryland Terrapins, these invaders from the East.

Some two hours later, Maryland owned the house and a ticket to Minneapolis, having left Stanford dazed and wondering how the Terps could make their stirring, 87-73 victory look so easy.

Maryland did not just earn its first trip to the Final Four in school history. It did not simply advance to Saturday's national semifinals for yet another date with Duke, a contest that could have instant classic written all over it.

The Terps, who have camped out in the West Regional for nearly two weeks and started their journey by sweeping the first two rounds in Boise, Idaho, stormed through Southern California by reducing one of the nation's premier teams to a befuddled, ordinary squad.

This is what all of those prognosticators were thinking when they made the Terps a Final Four choice last fall. This is what the experts were thinking when they declared Maryland such a hot team with a Final Four flavor in early March.

And this is the scene the Terps (25-10) envisioned when they began grinding through preseason practices in October.

As Maryland held the ball with the West Regional championship well in hand with 40 seconds to go, guards Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas embraced on the court. Danny Miller and Terence Morris joined in to form a group hug, while coach Gary Williams, savoring the realization of his first Final Four trip in 23 seasons of coaching, prowled the sideline with a wide grin and hand slaps for everyone.

Terps fans, several thousand of them packed mainly into two sections behind the Maryland bench, had transformed the arena into a Maryland home for most of the second half with deafening cheers. They turned their emotions loose and found a higher pitch while watching the Terps cut down the nets.

Senior forward LaRon Cephas, a reserve who barely plays but who has been dubbed the "mayor of College Park" because of his locker-room presence and natural charisma, leaped onto a chair and pumped his fist, urging the crowd to keep its high energy going.

Williams, wearing a regional championship cap, climbed the ladder to finish the net-cutting job to a thunderous roar. He looked into the stands, raised his hand and twirled the net. Minutes later, he looked exhausted and ecstatic after plopping onto a chair in the locker room.

"This takes a while to sink in, without a doubt," Williams said. "In the middle of February, I thought I might be walking a plank instead of walking up a ladder. I was trying not to fall down off the ladder because I was shaking so much."

There was nothing shaky yesterday about the Terps. Everything about them seemed cool, calculated and cut-throat. Remember Williams complaining earlier in the season about their lack of killer instinct? Does that 1-5 slump that bottomed out with that infamous loss to Florida State on Feb. 14 seem like last year's news?

These Terps won for the 10th time in 11 games because they were killers, beginning with center Lonny Baxter, who was the most angry, dangerous man in the Pond for the second time this weekend. Baxter torched Stanford for 24 points, beat up every big man the Cardinal could run at him - starting with 7-foot, All-American Jason Collins - and ran away with the region's Most Outstanding Player Award.

"We were just desperate to make the Final Four and get Coach there for the first time," Baxter said. "We aren't satisfied. We want to go on and win a national championship. We're proud of ourselves. It doesn't get any better than this."

Maryland probably can't play much better than this. The Terps, flashing their trademark depth, played the same, dogged defense that has defined their late-season run by muting one of the country's best-shooting teams. Stanford, after hitting 62.8 percent of its shots in a regional semifinal win over Cincinnati, made a season-low 41.1 percent against Maryland.

That's because Byron Mouton and Miller combined to put a muzzle on All-America guard Casey Jacobsen, who made only 4-of-11 shots to finish with 14 points. That's because post players like Baxter and Morris and backups like Mike Mardesich and Tahj Holden - brilliant with 14 points in 20 minutes - kept Jason and Jarron Collins at bay. They combined for 21 points, took just 13 shots and never really got involved.

And the Terps seemingly made every big shot they attempted. Maryland converted 58.2 percent of its shots overall, and stopped every hint of a Cardinal comeback by making 14 of 23 attempts (60.9 percent) in the second half. The Terps made 9-of-13 attempts from three-point range. Point guard Steve Blake made all three of his three-point attempts and finished with 13 points. Dixon finished with 17 points and made 7-of-10 shots.

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