On mission, Dixon takes the lead like greats of past

Maryland 97 - Kansas 88

Final Four

March 31, 2002|By Mike Preston

ATLANTA - There are times in sports when you just sit back and marvel at certain individuals, especially when they get into the zone.

Like Michael Jordan when he was feeling it in Chicago. Like Randy Johnson, when he is intimidating batters with the fastball. Like Brett Favre, when he is zipping passes in between two defenders.

Maryland guard Juan Dixon is feeling it, and the rest of the Terps are enjoying the ride. In the 2002 NCAA basketball tournament, he has carried the Terps on his little shoulders, and he did again last night in Maryland's 97-88 semifinal win against Kansas.

Maryland will play Indiana in the championship game tomorrow night at the Georgia Dome, and Dixon is expected to have another great performance, an encore. He has to have one, because it seems only fitting.

The Terps' run through the 64-team NCAA field is so reminiscent of the Ravens' Super Bowl runa little more than a year ago.

Juan Dixon has become Ray Lewis. They have the same obsession, the same look. It's a mission.

And it's fun to watch. Dixon scored 33 points last night, 19 in the first half when the rest of the starters, except for forward Chris Wilcox, were struggling. Point guard Steve Blake couldn't shake Kansas' guards and center Lonny Baxter was in foul trouble. Maryland looked like a team that was nervous instead of one that played in the Final Four a year ago.

But the Jayhawks couldn't handle Dixon. They tried beating on him, holding him. They tried just about everything short of a box-and-one. Nothing worked.

"He is just a great player," Terps forward Byron Mouton said. "The most impressive thing that always gets me is how he gets open, finds his shots and gets his shots. With a guy like that on your team, you've always got a chance to win."

But Dixon can beat you in so many ways. If he's not hitting that jumper from the corner, he is coming up with a big steal at a key time. If he can't get the steal, he's lunging over bodies and diving for loose balls or a rebound. He has been reckless and fearless.

Last night, he also became a part-time coach. When Maryland coach Gary Williams tried to substitute Drew Nicholas for Dixon in the first half, Dixon shouted no, and Nicholas returned to the bench.

When Baxter played only three minutes in the first half, it was Dixon who got in his face, told him to get his head up and step up and take control of the game in the second.

But that was Dixon's job.

The Terps had as much as a 20-point lead at one time in the second half, but Kansas pulled within 87-82 with 2:03 left. But it was Dixon who hit a runner from the baseline to extend the lead to seven with 1:11 left. He then made three foul shots in the remaining time.

Since losing to Duke in the Final Four a year ago, Dixon has been the most vocal about returning to win a national championship. He scored 29 points in each of the first two tournament games, and had 19 and 27 against Kentucky and Connecticut, respectively, last weekend. He has been named the ACC Player of the Year and an All-American.

There is one thing missing: a national championship ring.

"We've grown a lot since last year, so we just wanted to come back and see if we could win it," Dixon said. "Kansas is a good team, they forced some turnovers and I had to make a good shot to come back and win it.

"That was my goal coming into the tournament," Dixon said about carrying the Terps. "I wanted to be aggressive as possible. I think the guys have fed off my energy."

Baxter played only three minutes in the first half, and Blake continued his tournament slump of unimpressive play. At one point Maryland was down 13-2 with 15:58 left in the first half, but the Terps came out with a 44-37 halftime lead.

Why?

Juan Dixon.

When everything else was going poorly, he was the best player on the court. Dixon was 6-for-11 in the first half, 4-for-7 from three-point land. He scored 19 points, had two steals and played 20 minutes. Kansas tried just about everything in the first half, and nothing worked against him.

Dixon, like the rest of the Terps, started out slowly but warmed up with about 14 minutes left in the half. He hit a three-point jumper to pull Maryland within 13-8 with 14:14 remaining, and then scored a layup off his own steal to cut Kansas' lead to 13-10 almost a minute later.

Then with 12:05 remaining, Dixon connected on another three followed by a short jumper 23 seconds later.

Another three-pointer from Dixon in the corner with 7:17 remaining gave Maryland its first lead, 26-25. Dixon converted on three of five foul shots and another three-pointer in the remaining time to push Maryland ahead at the half.

He left the court with a well-deserved standing ovation from the Maryland fans. Kansas fans had to appreciate the show, too.

Kansas players complimented Dixon after the game, a fitting tribute to the player who had played the biggest part in knocking the Jayhawks out of the tournament.

"They had guys to replace him," Kansas All-American Drew Gooden said of the Jayhawks' inability to take advantage of Baxter's early foul trouble. "Juan Dixon was hitting from the outside, and so it was like Lonny was not even out of the game."

Kansas guard Keith Langford said of Dixon: "He is good. A guy comes off that many screens and you give him a good look and he is going to make the shot. He is not an All-American for nothing."

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