Terps rate an `A' for toughness

Win over UConn best evidence yet of team's resolve

Baxter, Dixon lead way

Having met nearly every expectation, singular goal is left

Final Four

Ncaa Tournament

March 26, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - When a highly ranked basketball team blows through its regular season by winning 25 games, earning a conference title and securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, it already has amassed plenty of momentum.

And yet, the Maryland Terrapins, who are obsessed with winning the school's first national title, will fly into their second straight Final Four this week with a renewed burst of fire.

This is what happens when an elite team digs deep to stay in pursuit of its ultimate goal. This is what happens when an elite team survives the determined punches of an opponent like Connecticut, which pushed Maryland to the ropes, only to be flattened in the end.

Beating fourth seed Kentucky in Friday's East Regional semifinal by overcoming ragged offense with gritty defense and excellent foul shooting was one thing.

Eliminating the second-seeded Huskies in Sunday's regional final by surviving a battle royale - a game that featured 21 ties and 24 lead changes and the unstoppable play of Huskies small forward Caron Butler - brought the toughness of these Terps into sharper focus.

Nowhere was it more evident than in the play of seniors Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon.

Baxter was a monster in the paint, where he abused several UConn defenders while piling up a season-high 29 points and a game-high nine rebounds, earning his second regional Most Outstanding Player award in the process.

Dixon was the killer on the wings with 27 points, and the memory of his two closing statements in Maryland's 90-82 victory at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., will linger.

First, there was the 22-footer from the left corner that put the Terps on top 70-69 with 7:42 left. But that was mere window dressing compared with The Shot.

With Maryland trailing 77-74 and the clock ticking under four minutes, Dixon measured UConn guard Taliek Brown near the top of the key, stepped back to create a bit of breathing room, then made a game-tying 24-footer. Maryland would never trail again.

Dixon, normally an icy competitor who keeps his emotions in check, could not contain himself after making the shot that sparked the Terps (30-4) on a game-ending, 16-5 run. With the Maryland fans and bench roaring, he pumped his fist and thrust his arm in windmill fashion.

"I don't show a lot of emotion, but a shock went through my body. I had to let it out. I hope Coach [Gary Williams] was pleased," said Dixon, who has scored 104 points in four NCAA tournament games. "I've probably never experienced a game like this before. I've played in a lot of great games, but with this much on the line? I've never experienced that."

The emotion carried into the post-game locker room, where players doused Williams with water after the team had cut down the nets, one of which Williams gave to Dixon. The emotion swept through the stands, where Terps faithful like Phil Dixon, Juan's older brother and biggest fan, were moved.

"His shots had me in tears," Phil said. "He wasn't going to be denied. He was going to the Final Four in Atlanta. There's never been a bigger shot that he's made. I'm so overwhelmed."

Add Williams to that list. Over four seasons, he has come to adore Dixon and Baxter, two players who entered his program accompanied by modest expectations. When asked about the superb play of Dixon and Baxter against the Huskies, Williams did not hesitate.

"That's the greatest thing I've ever seen. Those two guys in four years have been such great players for us," Williams said. "To get us to two Final Fours has been incredible."

Maryland, the only team to make it back from last year's Final Four group, now must tangle with a high-octane Kansas team, which won the Midwest Regional as the top seed, plays at a frenetic pace and boasts a host of scoring options, including forwards Drew Gooden and Nick Collison and guards Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Boschee.

But after surviving at Syracuse, forgive Maryland for feeling a confidence bordering on invincibility.

The Terps had an answer for everything while gutting out two wins. Williams resorted to 3-2 zone defenses, which effectively confused Kentucky and countered Connecticut's quickness, which had bothered the Terps at times.

Remember three months ago, when the Terps were struggling to make 50 percent of their free throws? They staged a clinic at the Carrier Dome by making 52 of 59 foul shots (88.1 percent). In the second halves, Maryland shot an astonishing 33-for-35 (94.3 percent). Baxter had a career high by making 15 of 18 against the Huskies.

Who would have thought the Terps would be moving on with point guard Steve Blake not at or near the top of his game? He turned in a foul-hampered, turnover-prone effort against Kentucky, then started poorly against UConn.

But there was Blake, making a clinching three-pointer and scoring all five of his points in the final 30 seconds against the Huskies.

Maryland did it the hard way, which made the regional championship that much sweeter the second time around.

This was not the up-and-coming, No. 3 seed that pushed around Georgetown and controlled top seed Stanford with surprising ease as an underdog. This was a much-publicized powerhouse that had to knock off schools that had won two of the previous four national titles in Kentucky and Connecticut.

"This is a different feeling," Terps assistant coach Jimmy Patsos said. "We were picked high [in the preseason]. Everybody wanted us, and we took some hits, like the loss at Oklahoma and the loss to N.C. State [in the ACC tournament]. But we've handled every challenge."

"There was a lot of pressure on us to get back to this point," junior forward Tahj Holden said. "I think we gave ourselves an opportunity to get back to the Final Four with the way we've played all year long. It's satisfying to get back there and prove everybody right."

Sun staff writer Paul McMullen contributed to this article.

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