ATLANTA - In winning the school's first national basketball championship, the University of Maryland played a different kind of game last night than it had for most of the season.
Maryland was gritty, not pretty, in beating Indiana, 64-52, before a crowd of 53,406 at the Georgia Dome. Relying on defense down the stretch, as well as some clutch free-throw shooting, the Terrapins wore down a pesky bunch of Hoosiers before pulling away with a 16-5 run that sealed the game.
Led by former Calvert Hall star Juan Dixon, who scored a game-high 18 points and hit a couple of key baskets after Indiana had erased an early 12-point deficit to pull into the lead, Maryland (32-4) ended years of frustration for the school's long-suffering fans.
It was the kind of game the Terrapins played the first few years after coach Gary Williams had returned to his alma mater.
The victory also gave Williams his first end-of-season championship since he was a high school coach in New Jersey 32 years ago. It was particularly significant for Williams, who nearly saw his own career jeopardized when he returned to his alma mater's troubled program in 1989.
"It's special," said Williams, 57, long after he and the Terps had cut down the nets and received the crystal trophy. "There had been so many great teams. Things had never worked out quite right. This year, they did. I hope everyone feels a part of this."
Said former Maryland All-American Len Elmore, who was here with his family to watch: "It's vindication for a lot of near-misses and some frustration over the years. To have a great team and no banner hanging ... now, it's all been done."
The championship came three months after the school's once- downtrodden football team reached the Orange Bowl, its first major bowl game in 25 years. It came one year after Maryland had lost to Duke in the semifinals of the Final Four in Minneapolis, a game in which the Terps blew a 22-point, first-half lead.
It seemed Maryland was on the verge of watching another big lead, and an even bigger game, slip out of its hands last night.
Again, Dixon came to the rescue. Despite going nearly 20 minutes between baskets after making his first four shots of the game, Dixon hit a three-pointer to put Maryland ahead for good in the second half. The hot-shooting Hoosiers cooled off after that, and made only one field goal in a stretch of eight minutes.
It was one of the sloppiest championship games in memory, dating to North Carolina State's miracle win over Houston at the Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1983. But the Terps will gladly give up style points, and displayed the kind of blue-collar approach that has become a trademark of Williams' teams.
When the final buzzer sounded, Dixon fired the ball into the air and fell into a bear hug on the floor with Lonny Baxter, whose defense and rebounding down the stretch in a 15-point, 14-rebound performance played a critical role in bringing Maryland out of its funk.
"It's a great feeling," said Dixon, who was a unanimous choice as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. "A lot of people doubted me when I got here, but I got better every year. To lead a team to a national championship, I'm speechless."
University of Maryland President C.D. "Dan" Mote summed up the run of success the school has had, both athletically and academically, in the past year. But the feel of utter joy had to be tempered by some other events that have affected the College Park campus in recent months.
`This has been a year of extremes," Mote said before the game. "Going to the Orange Bowl, and now the Final Four for the second straight year. But we also got hit by a tornado [in which two students died]. With 9-11, we had alumni killed. There's been both good and bad, but it would be like a dream for this to come true."
It was almost a surrealistic setting for many longtime Maryland fans to watch their beloved and once-beleaguered team play for a national championship. Just as they fretted when the Terps nearly blew a 20-point second half lead against Kansas in Saturday's semifinals, they seemed a little nervous last night.
"Just getting over the hump was hard," said Jim Spiro, a 1986 graduate who served three years as the team manager under former coach Lefty Driesell. "We always seemed to run into the hot team, like Villanova in 1985. This year, everything has come together."
Spiro, who now works as a salesman for a legal company in Washington, recalled growing up as a Maryland fan and having to settle for the consolation prize, such as winning the National Invitation Tournament. Spiro was in his seat two hours before game time, thinking of what it would mean to win the national championship.
"It would be getting to the top of the mountain," he said.