Final Four times 2

90-82 win over UConn sends Maryland back to national semifinals

Next: Kansas on Saturday

Ncaa Tournament

March 25, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - For five months, the Maryland Terrapins have been an attractive target as one of college basketball's elite teams. And for five months, the Maryland Terrapins have fended off so many determined opponents.

Last night, with another berth in the Final Four riding on the outcome in the NCAA East Regional championship at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, the Terps fashioned their finest hour to date in an amazing season.

And after seniors Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter created still more heroics in the waning days of their brilliant collegiate careers, after junior point guard Steve Blake made a shot that sealed a sweet win and took Connecticut's breath away with 25 seconds left, after Maryland hurdled every roadblock the Huskies threw in their way and pulled away to a thrilling, 90-82 victory, the celebration unfolded on and off the court.

The Terrapins, who have talked about winning the first men's basketball national championship in school history since losing to Duke in the semifinals of last year's NCAA tournament, are on their way to their second consecutive Final Four.

The top-seeded Terps, sporting a 30-4 record that is the best in school history, will tackle Kansas, the No. 1 seed from the Midwest Regional, on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. With a victory, Maryland would advance to its first NCAA title game on Monday, against the winner of the Oklahoma-Indiana semifinal.

"This is tremendously satisfying," said junior power forward Tahj Holden. "You work all year to get to this position, to be in the Final Four. The hardest part is getting there. There was a lot of pressure on us to get back to this point, and we did it. Now, we've got to win two more."

As the final horn sounded, after a game-ending, 7-2 run by the Terps that finally put away a dogged Connecticut team, the emotion took over.

Baxter, who put an exclamation point on 29-point night by grabbing his game-high ninth rebound just before the end and was named the region's most valuable player, clutched the ball for a few seconds, then threw it high in the air before slamming his hands on the floor.

Maryland coach Gary Williams chest-bumped sophomore power forward Chris Wilcox, then hugged him and slapped him with a towel. Senior forward Byron Mouton and reserve guard Calvin McCall exchanged chest bumps. Then the players, followed by Williams, cut down the nets to punctuate the history they had made. Williams gave the net to Dixon, who wore it around his neck in the locker room.

Through the din of the post-game party, several thousand Maryland fans stayed around to serenade their team with applause and cheers. Many had made the five- or six-hour drive from the Baltimore-Washington area, rolling right into what the natives had said was the most frigid weekend of an unusually mild winter.

What a way to warm up.

"We froze. We definitely froze around here, but this was fantastic. I don't know how else to describe it," said Bill Davie of Waldorf, who drove up with his family on Thursday after watching Maryland advance through the first and second rounds of the tournament at MCI Center in Washington last week.

"When we were down 77-74 and Dixon hit that three-pointer, that was huge. To get through this game the way they did, this team has got something. And we've got tickets to the Final Four."

Dixon, the Calvert Hall graduate and East Baltimore native who has overcome the critics who counted him out five years ago as too small and frail to make an impact at a high-powered school such as Maryland, put another stamp on a stellar career.

Already the leading scorer in school history coming into the game, Dixon dropped 27 points on the Huskies, and fans will talk about his gutty show of determination for years to come. They also will be buzzing about that three-pointer for some time - the shot he made with 3:43 left in the game from the top of the key to tie the score at 77.

The Terps never would trail again, as Dixon gave them a 79-77 lead with two free throws a bit later, then made the final two free throws to close the scoring.

"There was a lot of emotion out there. I'm sure a lot of people were on the edge of their seats," Dixon said. "I just made up my mind that there was no way we were going to lose this game. I didn't want this to be my last game."

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