Senior trio sets tenor for Terps

Leadership: Gritty gladiators Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton have carried Maryland to the top.

March 29, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Gary Williams has never had an easy time saying goodbye to his seniors. He usually cries after giving them a final sendoff at Maryland's annual men's basketball postseason banquet, and count on Williams to let the tears flow when that time comes next month.

After all, look where the older guys have taken the old coach.

As the Terrapins prepare for their second straight splash in the NCAA tournament's Final Four, beginning with tomorrow night's semifinal date with Kansas, they are fortified by a veteran squad led by a senior class that Williams has called the best ever to grace the university.

That claim is tough to refute. Guard Juan Dixon, center Lonny Baxter and small forward Byron Mouton are senior starters with different games and different personalities, yet their eyes have never wandered from the same goal. None of them was a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school, yet each has had a crucial hand in pushing Maryland (30-4) to historically high levels.

The Terps, who had never been to a Final Four until last year, won their first Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title in 22 seasons, completed only the fourth perfect home record in their final season at Cole Field House, earned the first No. 1 regional seed in the school's NCAA tournament history and became the first Maryland team to win 30 games. They will come to the Georgia Dome as the only repeat representative from last year's Final Four.

And there's no way any of that happens without the trio of seniors.

"You hate to see people leave your program that you like to be with," Williams said. "You can't replace what they have given the team, in addition to their basketball ability. You see them grow up. You see them gain confidence, in social situations and on the court. You see them go through everything you could go through."

This group has pretty much seen and done it all. Neither Baxter nor Dixon, who form the heart of Maryland's lethal, inside-outside attack, was highly regarded upon reporting to College Park. Mouton, who transferred from Tulane University after two seasons and sat out for a year before joining the lineup last year, had a reputation as a selfish scorer.

Dixon, the skinny, gritty Calvert Hall graduate who lives to take big shots like the ones he made in last week's East Regional final victory over Connecticut, has overcome the death of his parents to AIDS as a teen-ager and silenced the critics by becoming the leading scorer in school history and Maryland's first, first-team All-American since Joe Smith.

Baxter, the big man of few words from Silver Spring, emerged as a gladiator in the paint along the lines of Len Elmore and Buck Williams. He needs 23 rebounds to join Elmore as the only Terps to record 1,000 rebounds, and would become the only player in school history to amass 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds. He has won back-to-back NCAA tournament regional MVP awards.

Mouton has made quite an impression in two years. First, he unseated Danny Miller as a starter early last year, and won over Williams, teammates and fans with his all-out hustle and enthusiasm. This year, he became a more consistent scorer and the team's most-improved defender, while dealing with the shooting death of his older brother. He will leave Maryland with nearly 1,500 career points, including 728 at Tulane.

"Lonny doesn't say much. Juan is more vocal. Byron is just crazy. Basketball isn't always fun, but he keeps the fun going in practice. He's always energized," said junior forward Tahj Holden. "Their leadership is huge. To have guided us back to another Final Four, those seniors will be remembered for that."

"We learned a lot about what it takes to be leaders by watching [senior backup players] Mike Mardesich and LaRon Cephas last year. With all three of us being starters, guys are going to listen to us," Mouton said.

"Every time an argument starts, one of us is tapping somebody on the shoulder, saying: `Hey, be positive.' Some days, guys don't want to practice. It might be a tough test they just took. It might be a girlfriend issue. The main thing we tell the younger guys is, `Fight through it, and work hard.' The next thing you know, practice is over."

Williams has said that the value of such battle-tested, talented players can't be overstated. Including redshirt years, the senior trio - three of seven Terps to play in last year's Final Four - has been around the college game for a combined 14 seasons.

Dixon (108) and Baxter (105) have been part of more victories than any other Maryland players. Dixon has never missed a game and has scored in double figures 100 times. He has led the team in scoring and steals for three straight seasons. With Mouton in the starting lineup, Maryland is 54-12 dating to last year.

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