`This close,' Terps set for last step

Veteran team is confident first title 40 minutes away despite respect for Indiana

Season's destination is in view

Cinderella Hoosiers have shot, but Dixon & Co. possess unyielding belief

April 01, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - The Maryland Terrapins do not feel like a team of destiny. As the clock winds toward their first appearance in the NCAA tournament's title game, the Terps simply feel like the best team.

Only 40 more minutes of winning basketball stand in the way of a perfect ending to a magical season. Only 40 more minutes of winning basketball tonight against the Indiana Hoosiers stand between Maryland and a slice of history.

These Terps desperately want to be known as the first team to bring a national championship banner back to College Park.

Beginning with senior guard Juan Dixon, whose sheer will has shined along with that sweet shot for three weekends, the Terps are locked in on the final phase of a yearlong journey. And the way they envision it, Indiana is just the final victim they must dispatch before climbing two ladders to cut down one last pair of nets and put an exclamation point on their season.

"We realize we're this close," said junior backup guard Drew Nicholas, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart. "This has been such a goal for us all year. It's been our destination. You have to dream about games like this. This is the big one. If we play our brand of basketball, it's tough for anyone to hang with us."

"I kind of knew since last year, with the success we had, with everything we went through, that we would be here in this national championship game," said senior center Lonny Baxter, alluding to the Final Four trip that ended with a semifinal loss to Duke. "That was our goal. We just kept shooting for it. We believed the whole time that we would, and now here we are."

The Terps (31-4), who have played like a No. 1 seed should, who have beaten Kentucky, Connecticut and Kansas to get here, have overcome subpar efforts from starters such as Baxter and point guard Steve Blake and power forward Chris Wilcox along the way, and have won 18 of 19 games to get to the big one. They carry a healthy respect for Indiana, which is an eight-point underdog.

For starters, the Hoosiers have a pedigree, like Kentucky and Kansas, that has defined the NCAA for decades. Indiana has won five national championships and is playing in its eighth Final Four. And these Hoosiers have ridden a second-year coach, a wave of three-point shooters, a conference player of the year, a terrific bench and a Cinderella story into the title game as a No. 5 seed out of the South Regional.

Indiana used its bruising inside game to upset Duke in the regional semifinals, whipped upstart Kent State to get to the Final Four, then countered the speed and athleticism of favored, second-seeded Oklahoma by combining excellent defense with discipline and sharp three-point shooting.

So what if Indiana has a 25-11 record? Behind an array of shooters such as guards Tom Coverdale and Dane Fife and forwards Kyle Hornsby and Jared Jeffries - the sophomore heart of the Hoosiers and the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year - Indiana has been lighting it up from outside.

The Hoosiers, who made eight of 13 three-point attempts to unseat the Sooners, are shooting a blistering 52.9 percent from three-point range in the NCAA tournament.

"Any team that's gotten where Indiana has gotten, you don't look at their record, you look at how they're playing now," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who knows firsthand about that perspective. The Terps took a 21-10 record and a No. 3 seed into the NCAAs a year ago and ended up in the Final Four.

"Any time a team plays defense like they do, they have a chance to beat anybody," Williams said. "They proved that. They took out a very good Oklahoma team. That's what concerns me the most, their ability to play as a unit."

Then again, the Terps can be pretty frightening when they play as one, as they showed once again on Saturday night.

While Baxter fell victim to foul trouble, Wilcox stepped up to dominate Kansas All-America forward Drew Gooden, and backup Tahj Holden played his best game of the season. While Blake struggled once again to find his shot, he ran the offense beautifully in the second half, recording nine of his game-high 11 assists.

And while Maryland nearly blew a 20-point second-half lead, the Terps leaned on a senior named Dixon, whose hunger for a title has been on display all month. Dixon matched his career high with 33 points and leads all players with 137 points in the tournament. A 6-foot-3, 164-pound man's back never looked so strong.

"I'm not worried at all, man. I'm not talking trash, but that's just the type of person I am. I have a lot of confidence in my ability. I'm going to be aggressive," said Dixon, who is shooting 53 percent in the tournament, including 51.3 percent from three-point range.

"I'm going to be aggressive. I'm going to take my shots, be aggressive in the passing lanes, rebound with the big fellas, and hopefully I can perform well. I feel like I've accomplished my goal to be consistent and I hope I can do it for one more game and lead my team to a victory."

Said Indiana coach Mike Davis: "It's going to be a difficult game for us if we don't control [Dixon]. He's a tough-minded guy. Just listening to him talk in his interview, he's the guy who is on a mission. He wants to win the championship in the worst way, and you can tell. He's going to put Maryland on his back and try to do that."

Only one more obstacle remains for Maryland, which has knocked down every other roadblock to get here. The Terps finally hurdled Duke to win their first regular-season ACC crown in 22 years and secure the first NCAA tournament No. 1 seed ever. They have the best record in school history. And they are the first team in tournament history to advance to the title game by beating the highest-possible seed in every round.

"I don't think anybody is ever a team of destiny. You make things happen. You make your own breaks," Williams said. "These guys never wavered. These guys were willing to do whatever it took to get here."

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