- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

SYRACUSE, N.Y. The Maryland Terrapins had T-shirts printed up shortly after last season's trip to the Final Four. They wore the shirts through offseason workouts as a reminder of what this season was all about. The white tops with red trim have a concise message reflecting the only goal that really matters to them.
"'Final Four 2002, Atlanta, Georgia' nothing else," Maryland guard Drew Nicholas said. "We had our numbers on the back of it. Right on the front, we wanted to let it be known where we wanted to be, and we put ourselves in a very good position to do so."
Now Judgment Day has arrived.
Maryland has set a program record for victories in a season, won the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time in 22 seasons and earned a top seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time. But the true significance of this season will be determined today in the East Region final against Connecticut in the Carrier Dome.
The Terps (29-4) can validate their season with another trip to the Final Four. A victory today would make Maryland's season a smashing success, regardless of whether the Terps ultimately win their first national championship. Several players have said anything less than a berth in the Final Four would be a "failure."
"They're hanging in our lockers," Juan Dixon said of the motivational shirts ordered nearly a year ago by coach Gary Williams. "It's something we wanted to accomplish this year. When we were playing in the preseason, we knew Atlanta was a long way away. We took one game at a time. We got better throughout the year. And now we are there right now."
Williams broke through the Sweet 16 last season and led Maryland to its first regional title and Final Four appearance. That phenomenal run came as a surprise. This season the Terps have been a juggernaut from the beginning and spent the entire season in the top 10.
With four starters returning, Maryland was expected to contend for the national championship. The Terps have done everything asked of them so far in the NCAAs, including eliminating Kentucky in the regional semifinal Friday. But instead of having a wild celebration after the victory, which marked only the fourth time Maryland has reached the Elite Eight, the Terps merely shook hands with the Wildcats before quietly leaving the court.
"Your situation changes," Williams said before practice yesterday. "We gradually got to the point where we got some confidence that we could play in the NCAA tournament. Since we went to the Final Four last year, we knew coming here to the Sweet 16, this is what we have to do to get there. We are halfway there."
Maryland can go all the way by beating the second-seeded Huskies (27-6), who eliminated No.11 Southern Illinois in the regional semifinals. This is the Terps' second meeting with UConn after a 77-65 victory in the BB&T; Classic championship Dec. 3 at MCI Center.
While Maryland has steamrolled all season, the Huskies have evolved throughout the season from an NIT squad last year to Big East champions with a 74-65 double-overtime win over Pittsburgh in the conference tournament title game. Connecticut brings in a 12-game winning streak behind co-Big East player of the year Caron Butler, a 6-foot-7 small forward.
"He's just put us on his back," Huskies power forward Johnny Selvie said. "We're just filling our roles and playing with our hearts."
Butler is the only position at which UConn has an advantage over Maryland. The 235-pounder averages 20.0 points and 7.5 rebounds and is enjoying a terrific NCAA tournament. The 22-year old sophomore from Racine, Wis., scored 34 points on 10-for-13 shooting in the second round against N.C. State at MCI.
"The main thing is to stay between him and the basket," said Maryland's Byron Mouton, who will cover Butler. "His main strength is trying to slash and get to the basket and get a lot of offensive rebounds. Every time a shot goes up, I have to find where he is because he's a great offensive rebounder. He's strong, he's athletic and he's a very slashy person. I don't think he shoots too many 3s. The main thing is to be physical with him."
The Terps will try to stick with their proven offense of dumping the ball inside to Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox, who led the way in wearing out Kentucky's thinner front line Friday. Maryland's aggressive front will key on the Huskies' 6-9 freshman center, Emeka Okafor, and the 6-7 Selvie.
"We just can't let them catch the ball," Selvie said. "You have to fight them and bump them off the blocks. With Baxter and Wilcox and [Tahj] Holden, you have to keep them off the blocks. We're quicker than they are, so I think we can beat them to their spots. We're going to try to grind them. We can't give them any easy looks."
Both teams like to play an uptempo game. But while Butler and Co. can run with the Terps, it's questionable if they can pound with Maryland's big men.
"Connecticut is just as good as we are in transition," said Dixon, who is averaging 25.7 points in the tournament. "Hopefully, we can take advantage of our inside game and get the ball inside to Lonny and Chris to convert."
The Huskies are the final obstacle in Maryland's path to the Final Four. The Terps will know by early tonight whether their T-shirts set the tone or were wishful thinking.
"We've been pretty good all year taking it one game at a time, and that's what we need to continue to do," Dixon said. "We've been able to pull out close games. That's what it's all about this time of year."


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