Champions

Terps scrap way to NCAA title

Final Four

Maryland 64, Indiana 52

April 02, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - The dark cloud that has hovered over the University of Maryland basketball program for most of the past two decades, in one way or another, finally disappeared last night. Maybe forever.

With a gritty 64-52 victory over Indiana at the Georgia Dome, the Terrapins completed their six-game run in the NCAA tournament to win the first national championship in the program's long and bumpy history.

Led by former Calvert Hall star Juan Dixon, who scored a game-high 18 points, Maryland (32-4) pulled away from a pesky bunch of Hoosiers in the final four minutes.

The victory was the most significant for Maryland coach Gary Williams, who nearly saw his own career jeopardized when he returned to his alma mater's troubled program in 1989 and led the Terps back to national prominence in the past eight years.

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 that Maryland was on the verge of watching another big lead, and an even bigger game, slip out of its hands last night. After cruising to a 12-point lead midway through the first half, the Terps fell behind with a little under 10 minutes left in the game.

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. It started a 17-6 run that sealed the game - and the title - for the Terps.

It was one of the sloppiest championship games in recent memory, dating back 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 grit 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 to the floor with Lonny Baxter, whose defense and rebounding down the stretch in a 15-point, 14-rebound performance played a critical role in Maryland coming out of its funk.

With the arena bathed in red, it was difficult to tell which fans were rooting for the Terps and which were pulling for Hoosiers. The same could be said about the Olson-Ledford family, whose roots were in Maryland and Indiana.

Ron Olson has spent the past 40 years in Maryland and lives with his wife, Peg, in Annapolis, but he got his doctorate from Indiana in 1964 and later was on the faculty in College Park.

Jennifer Olson followed her father to Bloomington for college after attending Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. Before graduating from Indiana in 1993, she met native Hoosier Eric Ledford, who grew up in Indianapolis.

Brad Olson split his college years between Maryland and East Carolina, but he and his wife, Amy, were clearly pulling for the Terps. So were his parents. As for his sister, who sat with her Hoosier husband in the Maryland rooting section, there was some debate.

"I like to cheer for the underdog," said Jennifer Ledford.

Said Ron Olson: "They're going to be cheering for the underdog all night long."

University of Maryland President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. 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 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 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 a Maryland fan and having to settle for the consolation prize, like winning the National Invitational 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.

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