On The Brink

Maryland handles late rally by Kansas, heads to title game

Dixon led team with 33

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 scored 19 of his 33 points in the first half and led Maryland back from an early 13-2 deficit, as the Terps ran to a 97-88 semifinal victory over Kansas, the only other regional No. 1 seed to get here.

Maryland continued its run through the sport's bluebloods. A week after they beat Kentucky and Connecticut in Syracuse, coach Gary Williams' team defeated another former NCAA champion. In tomorrow's national championship game, Maryland will be favored against Indiana, the five-time title-holder, which upset Oklahoma in the first semifinal, 73-64.

Kansas, the nation's scoring leader, was a slight 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, Maryland's all-time leading scorer, gave the Terps an 83-63 lead before Kansas made a late run that got them within four points. Dixon's basket with 1:14 left stemmed the furious Jayhawk rally, which evoked painful memories of last year's NCAA semifinal loss to Duke, when Maryland blew a 20-point lead. 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 had never been to a Final Four before last season, as both the Terps and Dixon have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.

Dixon's admirers included Larry Bradley, a fellow alumnus of Calvert Hall who was watching him for the first time, and C.D. "Dan" Mote, the president of the University of Maryland 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.

It was a long day for all involved. Nature provided a wake-up call at 6:30 a.m. in the form of thunderstorms that returned periodically throughout the day. Ted Danson was there to shill his sitcom on CBS, the telecast's rights holder. His toupee was as perfect as ever, but many of the 50,000 entered the Georgia Dome soaking wet, and the Maryland contingent had to sweat through a close game with Kansas, the 1988 champion.

Maryland was on spring break last week, but it was still a hectic one for Mote.

On Sunday, Dixon and East Regional Most Valuable Player Lonny Baxter led the Terps to a comeback win over Connecticut that earned them a return trip to the Final Four a year after they got Maryland to that level for the first time. On Monday came the news that William E. "Brit" Kirwan, whom Mote had replaced in 1998, had 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, and 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, just a great human being."

Dixon's parents were addicted to drugs and died of AIDS. He was unable to play for Maryland in 1997-1998 because of academic shortcomings, but he is near the completion of his degree.

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

When Maryland coach 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, where he still lives. The city's coaches include Georgia State's Lefty Driesell, Maryland's basketball boss from 1969-86. He coached the late 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. I watched basketball here during the 1996 Olympics, and the view wasn't much better than this. We're in good shape. You don't have to scan much with the binoculars because they take in the whole court, but you're in trouble if you want to look in at a huddle.

"I've never seen so much red, I just don't know who it's all for."

Kansas' blue stood out. This is ACC country, but Maryland was the outsider in a Final Four that otherwise was fed by the Heartland. The Oklahoma crowd was dotted with cowboy hats and boots. Indiana's conflicted faithful were watching their first Final Four without former coach Bob Knight since 1953. And among Terp fans, the jersey number of choice was 3, which is worn by Dixon.

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