On The Brink

Maryland handles late rally by Kansas, heads to title game

Dixon leads with 33 points

Terps face Indiana in 1st appearance in NCAA championship

Maryland 97 - Kansas 88

Final Four

March 31, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Juan Dixon, the unlikely All-American from Baltimore and the University of Maryland, shined on college basketball's biggest stage last night.

With fellow senior Lonny Baxter and nearly every other player on the Georgia Dome floor struggling under the pressure of the Final Four, Dixon excelled in front of a crowd of 53,378. The senior from Calvert Hall scored 19 of his team-high 33 points in the first half and led Maryland back from an early 13-2 deficit, as the Terps sprinted to a 97-88 semifinal victory over Kansas.

The 33 points tied Dixon's career high, raised his Maryland scoring record to 2,251 points, doomed Kansas and capped what had to be the biggest week in Terps basketball history.

Kansas was a two-time NCAA champion, and Maryland will attempt to continue its run through the game's bluebloods in tomorrow night's national championship game against five-time titlist Indiana, which upset Oklahoma in the first semifinal, 73-64. Maryland has been installed as a 7 1/2 -point favorite. Last weekend in Syracuse, Maryland defeated seven-time champion Kentucky and 1999 winner Connecticut.

Kansas, the nation's scoring leader, was a 1 1/2 -point favorite, but the Jayhawks couldn't keep up with the Atlantic Coast Conference's regular-season champions, who padded the best record in school history to 31-4.

A three-point shot with 6:09 left by Dixon gave the Terps an 83-63 lead, but Kansas made a late run that got them within four points.

It evoked painful memories of last year in Minneapolis, where Maryland blew a 22-point lead against Duke and finished on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in Final Four history. Dixon's runner from the left side with 1:11 left stemmed the furious Kansas rally and gave the Terps an 89-82 lead.

"We were struggling at the time," said Dixon, who scored 10 straight points for Maryland in the first half. "We needed some buckets, and I took it upon myself to hit some shots."

Foul trouble limited Baxter, but sophomore forward Chris Wilcox outplayed Drew Gooden, the Kansas All-American who had four points in the first 30 minutes.

Maryland has never won a national championship in men's basketball. It had never been to a Final Four before last season, as both the Terps and Dixon have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.

"The thing we have this year is courage," said coach Gary Williams, who has taken his alma mater to new heights. "Teams have to make a great effort to beat us. I'm pleased to get Lonny Baxter another game. Juan Dixon has been there all year, and the three years before that. In big situations, he's going to be there."

Kansas coach Roy Williams said that Dixon was "sensational." Other admirers included Larry Bradley, a fellow alumnus of Calvert Hall who was watching Dixon for the first time, and C.D. "Dan" Mote, the president of the University of Maryland, College Park, who makes it a point to visit with his institution's most famous student once a week.

Mote had one of the best seats in the house, while Bradley's not-so-cheap seat in the upper deck required binoculars to watch the action.

Mote's week included the news that William E. "Brit" Kirwan, whom Mote had replaced in 1998, accepted an offer to return as chancellor of higher education in the state. Both Kirwan and Mote are in the business of putting the best face on the university. Dixon, a 1997 graduate of Calvert Hall, has been a great salesman.

"I speak with Juan every week," said Mote, who paced nervously near the bench as Maryland warmed up. "He's a wonderful person."

With the Terps closing the curtain on 47 seasons at Cole Field House, this was a historic season. Peculiarly, much of Maryland's had found its way to the capital of the New South.

When Gary Williams played for the Terps, his coach was Bud Millikan. When Millikan left the business in 1967, he opened a branch office for a Baltimore developer in nearby Stone Mountain, Ga., where he still lives.

Atlanta's coaches include Georgia State's Lefty Driesell, Maryland's basketball boss from 1969-86. He coached Len Bias and the Terps to an ACC tournament championship in 1984.

Two years later, Maryland lost here in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, when Georgia Tech's Duane Ferrell stole an ill-advised inbounds pass. Before Dixon became the ACC Player of the Year this season, Ferrell had been the best-known basketball product of Calvert Hall.

The Cardinals were not a basketball power in 1971, when Bradley graduated from the school in Towson that is operated by the Christian Brothers.

A native of Northeast Baltimore, he went to Lynchburg College, but always had a soft spot for Maryland. An IBM representative who now lives in Virginia Beach, last year Bradley won the lottery for two tickets to this Final Four.

When he earned the right to spend hundreds of dollars on seats that aren't even good at an NFL Falcons game, there was no guarantee that he and his 12-year-old son, Jeff, would get to see Maryland.

"When Dixon and Maryland got here, that was icing on the cake," Bradley said. "Jeff said it doesn't matter where we sit, it's a Final Four."

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