Terps rest, try to gain perspective

Pressure of pursuing title relinquishes day after taking hold of it

`I feel like I'm dreaming'

Teams of tradition fail to deter UM men from 19-1 finish, first crown

Final Four

National Champion

April 03, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - As the victories piled up, the confidence grew into a quiet arrogance, yet a hint of desperation remained with the Maryland Terrapins as they plowed their way into the history books. The Terps could not relax, would not relax, until pressing this mission to the only conclusion they could envision.

The hunger would be revealed in game after game, from the way senior guard Juan Dixon made big shots, forced key turnovers and ran defenders ragged, to the way senior center Lonny Baxter hammered opponents mercilessly in the paint, to the way senior forward Byron Mouton reveled in the dirty work of grabbing offensive rebounds and sacrificing his body while retrieving yet another loose ball.

Yesterday, the greatest men's basketball team in the history of the University of Maryland finally rested. Yesterday, hours after delivering the first national basketball championship in the school's 79-year history with a hard-earned 64-52 victory over Indiana at the Georgia Dome, the sleep-deprived Terps were trying to come to grips with what they had done.

"It's a great feeling to be part of something special. It really hasn't hit me yet," said Dixon, who led Maryland to its second straight Final Four, then capped an All-America season by earning the Most Outstanding Player award of the Final Four by unanimous vote. "I feel like I'm dreaming because I'm part of a national championship team. I'm just glad that I could go out on top."

"Everybody who has played would love to win a national championship," Mouton added. "Once I get home, I'm going to get a good night's sleep and realize that it's over with. It's going to be with us for the rest of our lives."

"I don't really feel anything. I feel numb. Everything is moving so fast," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who has toiled for 24 seasons in his profession and completed the resurrection of Maryland's program by reaching the pinnacle after 13 seasons at his alma mater.

Williams, who did not sleep on Monday and choked back tears while answering questions in a hoarse voice before flying home with his team yesterday, continued to marvel at Maryland's resolve in the face of such high expectations.

The Terps spent nearly the entire season ranked in the top five, earned their first Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title in 22 seasons, rode their first-ever No. 1 seed to a school-best 32-4 record and were the last team standing in the NCAA tournament. On the way to its title, Maryland won 19 of its final 20 games and closed by beating Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas and Indiana - a veritable four corners of rich basketball tradition.

Maryland made its own tradition by blending its elements of speed, power and unselfishness, and the Terps showed their adaptability by hitting all of the notes.

They ran a high-powered Kansas team out of Atlanta with a 97-88 victory for their first Final Four victory, despite missing a foul-hampered Baxter for much of the game.

Two days later, they engaged in a turnover-prone, rough-and-tumble affair with Indiana, fell nearly 22 points below their season scoring average and won with tenacious defense and the clutch play of their senior trio.

Only once did Maryland score fewer points in a victory this season. Monday's game marked the lowest-scoring NCAA final in 19 seasons. For the Terps, it was just another way to win.

"We were picked No. 2 or 3 in the country early. This is the first year where we probably played only two or three games where we weren't the favorite. You had to take each team's best shot," Williams said.

"There were times earlier in the year when we weren't sure we liked that. As time goes on, that makes you better. You're wearing that as a badge, this toughness thing. `Come on, give us your best shot and we'll see what happens.'

"Indiana did a great job of getting us slowed down. To hold a team like that under 40 percent [34.5 percent shooting] was a big thrill for me. You preach all year about how your defense wins big games. You had to be a good defensive team to win that game."

The Terps reached the top with quite a sense of timing. They closed the book on the Cole Field House era with a championship, will say goodbye to their most accomplished senior class ever and will christen the Comcast Center with a mid-November opener against Miami (Ohio) as defending national champions with a new face.

Guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas will form a senior backcourt. Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle will form a senior frontcourt. The incoming recruiting class of guards John Gilchrist and Chris McCray and forwards Travis Garrison, Nik Caner-Medley and Allegany College standout Jamar Smith - who is expected to sign with Maryland next week - will give the team a youthful flavor.

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