- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

SYRACUSE, N.Y. After the game, University of Maryland players wore commemorative hats and wide smiles. What people couldn't see was their sighs of relief.
In a scintillating basketball game that stood as one of the best of this year's NCAA tournament, the Maryland men's basketball team pulled out its East Region final game yesterday at the Carrier Dome with a 90-82 defeat of Connecticut, lifting the Terrapins to their second straight Final Four appearance.
The teams exchanged the lead 24 times and were tied 14 times, keeping the crowd of 29,252 riveted for the entire 40 minutes. The Terps' Steve Blake could not have picked a better time to make his first field goal of the game with 25 seconds to play, his three-pointer made it 86-80 and virtually assured Maryland of victory.
The Terps have been gunning for the national championship since losing to Duke in the semifinals last season in Minneapolis. They won their school-record 30th game last night, but in playing under the pressure of being one of the four No.1 seeds for the first time in school history in the 65-team NCAA tournament, only a national championship will quell their hunger.
"That's the only reason why we're playing in this," said forward Lonny Baxter, who was named the region's most valuable player for the second straight season. "This year, we have a lot more experience, we know what it takes. This time around, we're going in there with a different attitude and ready to win this thing."
The Final Four begins Saturday in Atlanta. Maryland made its first appearance in the national semifinals last season, and has followed it with a return trip, the only team from last season's Final Four to do so.
The Terps (30-4) will play Kansas, the No.1 seed from the Midwest Region, Saturday at the Georgia Dome. Indiana, the No.5 seed from the South and the team that upset top-seeded Duke in the round of 16, plays West No.2 seed Oklahoma in the other semifinal.
Maryland spent its entire season, which included a 13-game winning streak, ranked in the top eight nationally. The Terps were regarded as one of three elite teams in the country, along with Duke and Kansas.
The Terps could not have won yesterday without two of their seniors Baxter, who scored 29 points, and guard Juan Dixon, who had 27.
"We're very happy. We knew [the Terps] had the power, and the better team," said David Smith, Dixon's uncle who had traveled from Baltimore to see the game. "You saw the seniors take control Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon."
After a tightly contested first half after which the Terps led 44-37, Maryland held a six-point lead early in the second half. Connecticut erased the deficit by scoring seven straight points to take the lead with 13:11 to play, and the teams seesawed back and forth throughout the rest of the game.
"It was a fight," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who has led the Terps to nine straight NCAA tournament appearances. "I've seen a lot of games to get to the Final Four and I don't believe there has ever been a more competitive one."
Every time it looked as if one team were on the verge of taking control of the game, the other would respond with a defensive stop or a big basket to keep the game close.
Maryland was supported by a strong contingent of its fans, who had flown or made the six-hour drive from the District area to upstate New York.
"It's unbelievable. What a great game, what a way to win," said Chris Stuchko, a junior at Maryland.
Last season, Maryland reached the semifinals as a No.3 seed by upsetting the West Region's top seed, Stanford. At the Final Four, Maryland raced to a 22-point first-half lead against Duke before wilting in a 95-84 loss. Duke then defeated Arizona to win the national championship.
Yesterday's victory continues a tremendous string of athletic achievements for the school dating to last March. Since then, the women's lacrosse team won its seventh consecutive national championship and the football team won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and played in the Orange Bowl.
"It's important for the university to be great in everything it does," said school President C.D. Mote while wearing a championship hat and T-shirt. "The team has represented the university well. I'm proud of our guys. They bring such a positive glow to the university."


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