MINNEAPOLIS -- Tahj Holden never looks for a fight, although the Maryland sophomore forward is quite equipped for the task.
"He's always been big. From kindergarten on, he was a head taller than everybody else. He's always been a gentle giant," said Debbie Holden, his mother. "He would be the one to try to talk you out of things. He would walk away. He never looked for conflict."
Not so on the basketball court, where the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Holden is practiced at the art of throwing a well-placed elbow to establish some presence in the paint.
Holden is not a brute, not even close. He is a big man with a small man's touch. To watch him step out and drill a three-pointer or pass the ball crisply in traffic is to watch a guard trapped in the body of a post player. And he looks just as comfortable mixing it up with the big boys down low.
Some think he is on his way to stardom in the Atlantic Coast Conference. With the impending exit of senior Terence Morris, the power forward position appears to be Holden's to lose next season.
The Terrapins (25-10) may not have reached their first Final Four without Holden. On a team that brings three center-forward types off the bench to wear down the opponent's frontcourt, he has emerged as the best of the lot.
His game, which should feature more low-post, back-to-the-basket moves next year, is potentially as scary as Holden is not.
An imposing young man could not be more tame off the court, where Holden needles reporters and teammates with a soft-spoken voice and a constant smirk. He is a smart student who happens to be a smart aleck. More than once this year, Holden, an aspiring sports broadcaster, has told ABC's Dick Vitale that he is coming after Vitale's job.
"I'm his worst critic, and he listens to nothing I have to say," Debbie said. "He likes to talk. He was like that in high school. He's always coming back with a wisecrack."
Holden probably will have something vital to say about whether the Terps get past Duke (33-4) tomorrow night and advance to Monday's NCAA championship game at the Metrodome. He has been a thorn in the Blue Devils' side this season, combining for 31 points and nine rebounds in three previous meetings with Duke. The Blue Devils have won two of those games.
"The best always bring out the best in each other. It will be fun to play Duke again," said Holden, who had some fun at Stanford's expense a week ago in the West Regional final.
Holden's 14 points and three three-pointers -- tying a career record -- fueled Maryland's commanding 87-73 victory. His performance also served as an I-told-you-so message to the Cardinal, which backed off after an initial recruiting push to get Holden while he was starring as the center for Red Bank (N.J.) Regional High School.
"It always feels good to do well against a school that recruited you, then passed you by," said Holden, who dropped two three-pointers while shooting in front of Stanford coach Mike Montgomery.
"That felt really good," Holden added.
Holden, who played in all 35 Terps game as a freshman, is fortunate to be enjoying the Final Four ride in uniform. Back on Dec. 7, two days before a game against Penn he had circled on the schedule, Holden felt some unusual soreness in his left foot after practicing at Cole Field House.
On the day of the Penn game, he had successful surgery to repair a fractured bone. He missed the next nine games, before returning against Wake Forest on Jan. 17, his 20th birthday. He has not missed a game since.
"I was playing pretty well before I got injured," said Holden, who wondered during his rehabilitation if the season would be lost to a medical-redshirt move by Maryland. "It was disappointing, not getting to play those nine games, especially against Penn, because I know a couple of guys on that team. This kind of makes up for it."
Although he gets noticed primarily because of his shooting touch -- he shoots 49.3 percent overall and has converted 12 of 25 three-pointers (48 percent) this season -- Holden takes pride in having helped to transform the Terps' personality. The team that got shoved around by teams like Illinois, Dayton and North Carolina, the team that once allowed too many foes to dribble into the heart of the defense uncontested, is now a meaner animal, because of players like Holden.
On the day the Terps started their current 10-1 streak with a victory at Wake Forest, Holden threw his considerable weight around and made life tough for the Demon Deacons in the lane. His battle of elbows and taunts with center Josh Shoemaker still resonates. A week ago in the regionals, Holden was in the middle of the action, as Maryland dominated Georgetown and Stanford inside. Holden averaged 17 minutes in those games.
In the NCAA tournament, Holden's 7.0-point scoring average is tops among Maryland's reserves. Only Danny Miller is averaging more postseason minutes that Holden's 14.3.