- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

ATLANTA Juan Dixon lugged a duffle bag and a carrying case through the lobby of the Hilton hotel yesterday morning. The slender shooting guard nearly tipped over as he worked his way out of the elevator to join his team. Dixon may have been the Final Four Most Outstanding Player in leading Maryland to its first national championship, but the All-American wasn't receiving the star treatment.
It was fitting Dixon carried the bulky baggage as he left the city where he and the Terrapins scored the biggest win in their 98-season basketball history. Dixon carried much of the weight for Maryland all season.
"I was just glad to be able to go out on top," Dixon said after a sleepless night that included visits to some Atlanta nightspots. "It was a great night, though. I might stay up all night tonight, too go home and celebrate. It's a great feeling. I have been a part of something special."
The mood was similar happy and tired for all the Terps as they boarded the bus to go to the airport the day after their grinding 64-52 victory over Indiana in the Georgia Dome. Lonny Baxter, who had 15 points and 14 rebounds in his final college game, was bleary eyed. Byron Mouton was emotionally drained but proudly wore a national championship hat with a strand of the Georgia Dome net he helped cut down tucked in the back.
"I'm part of history," said Mouton, who was with his family until about 4 a.m. and with teammates after that. "It will be with me for the rest of my life that I was on a team that went to the Final Four two years in a row and won the national championship. It doesn't feel like the end. Maybe when I go home and get a good night sleep and wake up I'll realize it's over. That there is no more practice no more college career."
There were a handful of well-wishers and autograph seekers as the national champions left for the airport, headed for yesterday's celebration at Cole Field House. Coach Gary Williams had accepted the championship trophy early in the morning and tucked it safely away.
It belonged to Maryland after a spectacular season in which it set a program record for wins with a 32-4 record, captured the ACC regular-season title and earned a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time. Maryland finished the season by winning 19 of its final 20 games and maneuvering through several nerve-racking games to earn the title.
And nerve-racking perfectly described the final victory, in which Maryland sputtered on offense and had to rely on its defense.
"Indiana came out and executed its game plan," said Maryland guard Drew Nicholas, whose team held the Hoosiers to 34.5 percent shooting. "They wanted to keep the game in the low 60s, maybe even the 50s. I thought it was our defense that won it. Even while they were playing good defense, we were also playing very good defense. Once our offense kicked in a little bit, that's when the game changed."
Of course, Dixon again made the critical shots. He averaged 25.8 points and shot 54 percent from the field in the six-game tournament. Dixon hit the key shot a 3-pointer on a fastbreak after Indiana took its only lead at 44-42 midway through the second half. Later, he hit a 17-foot fall-away jumper with defender Dane Fife in his face to push the lead to 51-46. Dixon finished with 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting, five steals and five rebounds.
"What hasn't he done throughout his career?" Nicholas said. "You can't expect anything less not from him. He came up with big baskets against Kansas [when he matched his career high with 33 points]. You knew it was going to happen."
The rest of the team followed Dixon's lead as Maryland broke open a close game in the end. Nicholas hit an over-the-shoulder layup after Mouton made a sensational save to keep the ball in play to make it 55-49, and the Terps made nine of 10 free throws to close an 11-0 run and grab the title.
"We knew somehow, some way, we were going to win this basketball game," Nicholas said. "By far, we didn't play our best 40 minutes, granted. But this was the national championship game, and we found a way to win. All great teams find a way to do that."
Now the Terps will celebrate. Dixon, Baxter and Mouton will begin to prepare for careers in professional basketball. Maryland could lose a fourth starter if sophomore Chris Wilcox decides to go to the NBA. His stock continued to rise with each strong game he had in the tournament, especially after outplaying All-American Drew Gooden in the semifinal.
The 6-foot-10 Wilcox will speak with his mother and Williams before making a decision but has said he probably would leave if he is projected as an NBA lottery pick, which seems likely. That would leave point guard Steve Blake as the only returning starter, but the Terps do return their top three reserves in juniors Tahj Holden, Ryan Randle and Nicholas.
The future can be put on hold. For now, Maryland will bask in the knowledge it is the best team in college basketball.
"It is so far-fetched to believe we are national champions," Nicholas said. "It almost seems like we're watching someone else. But for however much longer this earth stands, we are the national champions in 2002. No one can ever take that away from us."


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