MINNEAPOLIS - Steve Blake and Jason Williams know each other all too well. The respective point guards from Maryland and Duke have faced each other six times over the past two seasons. They roomed together when they played last summer for the U.S. junior national team in Brazil.
No one-on-one battle will be watched more closely tomorrow, when Maryland and Duke take the Final Four stage to renew a rivalry that has become possibly the nation's most compelling.
And if the Terps advance to Monday's national championship game, Blake probably will have gotten the best of Williams in their fourth showdown this season.
"We're friends off the court. When we play against each other, we just go at it," said Blake, whose defense has kept Williams in check in all but two of their six encounters, going back to last season.
Williams, the most explosive scoring threat with the nation's most prolific offense, has had trouble breaking down Blake and breaking down the Terps' defense off the dribble. The only thing that stopped Blake on Jan. 27, when Duke erased a 10-point deficit with 54 seconds left in regulation before edging the Terps in overtime, was Blake.
With 1:51 left in regulation, Blake fouled out after forcing Williams to commit a season-high 10 turnovers. With Blake on the bench, Williams saved Duke by making two three-pointers and scoring eight points in a 14-second stretch of regulation play.
Before the first rematch at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 27, which the Terps won, 91-80, Blake and Williams hardly made eye contact while shooting around together at the same end of the court. Blake went on to spark the Terps with a game-high 11 assists, and played a significant hand in Williams' 5-for-16 shooting.
Blake had five points, 11 more assists and eight rebounds in the 84-82 Duke victory in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals on March 10. Williams had 19 points, five assists and only one turnover.
A judge probably would give Blake a 4-2 edge in head-to-head matchups with Williams, who is on a scary tear during the NCAA tournament. He has scored 115 points in four games. Blake already has set a single-season record at Maryland with 243 assists, and he seems to bring a sharp defensive effort to bear whenever he plays Williams.
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "[Jason Williams] is a great player. We know going in we have to do some things to stop him defensively. But they have players like [Shane] Battier and [Carlos] Boozer and [Mike] Dunleavy. We can't just focus on stopping Jason Williams."
Shooting goes afoul
If Maryland center Lonny Baxter was as good at shooting free throws as he was in high school or at Hargrave Military Academy, the junior probably would be leading the Terps in scoring, and would rank among the ACC's leaders.
Baxter is shooting just 58.6 percent at the line. He has made nine fewer free throws (116) than guard Juan Dixon, while earning 198 attempts, which is 53 more than Dixon, who leads Maryland in free-throw shooting percentage (.862).
"I used to shoot technicals and everything back in high school. It's just mental," said Baxter, who also shot 85 percent at the foul line at Hargrave.
"I practice free throws every day. ... When I miss a shot, I'm mad, I'm upset. I want to make every one."
Baxter, second on the team in scoring with 15.7 points a game, leads Maryland in shooting percentage from the field (.576). The foul line is a different story. He shot 60 percent from the line as a freshman, before dropping to 53.3 percent last year.
His mother, Edna Hughes, sees a connection with Baxter's bulked-up physique. He hardly resembles the flabby 200 pounds he was when he came to Maryland in 1998. Baxter, 6 feet 8, said he has trimmed 10 pounds during the year and now weighs 250.
Said Hughes: "When the muscles came, the shooting percentage went berserk."
Going to the Final Four feels surreal to Maryland sophomore Tahj Holden, who is one reason why the Terps are on the game's big stage for the first time in school history.
"We're kind of caught up in it right now with the media and everything. It's one of those things you probably don't realize until it's over," Holden said.
"The Final Four is something you always dream about getting to. Now that we're in it, it doesn't really seem like we're in it. It feels like just another game. When it's over, we'll probably realize what we've accomplished."
On the Web
Get complete coverage of the Final Four at www.sunspot.net/sports/college/basketball.