ATLANTA - It started with a stumble at Madison Square Garden. Nearly five months later, it brings the Maryland Terrapins back where they had planned to be all along.
Maryland has enjoyed a remarkably smooth ride during its march back to the Final Four. The Terps (30-4), who have produced the best record in school history, have strung together winning streaks of eight and 13 games, lost only once since Jan. 17, produced a first-team All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in senior guard Juan Dixon and an ACC Coach of the Year in Gary Williams.
The Terps have been determined to get back to the Final Four since blowing a 22-point lead against Duke and losing in last year's first trip to the sport's climactic weekend. They are two victories away from winning the first national title in school history.
Here are a few glances back at the road they traveled to get here:
Best wake-up call: It took Maryland exactly one night to realize it must improve its game-day focus. On opening night, Nov. 8, in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, then-unranked Arizona awakened the No. 2 Terps by defeating them, 71-67, on a night when Arizona point guard Jason Gardner was the best player and Maryland missed eight of 12 free throws. The Terps, who took the youthful Wildcats too lightly, rebounded by defeating Temple the next day.
Best early sign: Sophomore power forward Chris Wilcox had a coming-out party by playing the best game of his career to that point. Dixon and Steve Blake destroyed the much-ballyhooed backcourt of Frank Williams and Cory Bradford. And on Nov. 27 at Cole Field House, Maryland beat then-second-ranked Illinois, 76-63, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Terps looked like Final Four material that night.
Clutch shots: With Dixon's crucial back-to-back three pointers late in last week's 90-82 victory over Connecticut in the East Regional title game still lingering in our minds, we still can't forget the long-distance baskets Drew Nicholas dropped at Virginia on Jan. 31. Trailing by seven points at the three-minute mark, Nicholas made a pair of 27-foot jump shots to spark the Terps to a 91-87 victory. That solidified Maryland as an ACC title contender and gave the Terps a blast of momentum they are still riding.
The holiday eye-opener: The Terps had not played a true road game until Dec. 21, which was not a good night to resume action after a 10-day break for final exams. That's when the Oklahoma Sooners, ranked No. 22 at the time, used their athleticism to surge past Maryland in the final five minutes and pull away to a 72-56 victory. We know how good Oklahoma is now, and we know how much the Terps learned from that experience.
Less is more: Maryland rode its deepest team ever into last year's Final Four, as Gary Williams built a 10-man rotation. The Terps then lost three seniors and junior forward Danny Miller, who transferred to Notre Dame. Maryland has been an eight-man team this time, with seven players drawing from last year's postseason ride. Fewer bodies but clearly a better team.
Dixon delivers: Dixon has done so many great things in the clutch that he has spoiled fans over the years. He made the biggest shots of the NCAA tournament against UConn and has averaged 26 points in four games. He made the free throw in the final second to hold off upset-minded Wake Forest, 90-89. He sealed the comeback against Virginia with the game-winning shot. He had the key steal and assist and made two free throws in the final 30 seconds to hold off Georgia Tech, 92-87.
A night of catharsis: Everybody knew the worst North Carolina team ever had no chance when the Tar Heels visited Cole Field House on Jan. 9. But one could feel a delirious home crowd casting out all Carolina demons, as the Terps laid a 112-79 rout on their nemesis from Chapel Hill. That is the worst beating Maryland ever put on the Tar Heels, and the most points ever allowed by Carolina.
Where few forwards soar: Wilcox has been Maryland's most inconsistent starter, which is not surprising, considering he is 19 and learning the game's nuances. But the 6-foot-10 phenom leads the team in highlight-reel material, whether he's throwing down one of those head-above-the-rim dunks, missing a slam or leaping high and stretching out for one of those majestic rebounds.
Taking a punch: Clemson came to College Park on Jan. 20 with a reputation as a good outside shooting team. The Tigers proceeded to stun Maryland by making a school-record 11 three-pointers in the first half before finishing with 15 threes. And it still wasn't enough to rattle the Terps, who combined great second-half shooting and powerful inside play to win, 99-90.