- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

The Final Four expectations were there long before a single basketball practice began this season at Maryland. They intensified as the Terrapins garnered the best regular-season record in program history, an ACC regular-season championship and a top seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
The Terps' East Region championship Sunday in Syracuse, N.Y., was not a revelation like the previous season when Maryland earned its first trip to a Final Four. However, players said the 90-82 victory over Connecticut was just as satisfying if not more than last season when they were seeded third and upset No.1 Stanford in the West Region final. Sunday's accomplishment also brought a sense of relief.
"Last year, we kind of crept up on people," said Maryland center Lonny Baxter, the regional MVP in both seasons. "Nobody expected us to do anything in the tournament. This year to come through like we did was special. We were a marked target all the way."
The Terps saw the preseason publications picking them to return to the Final Four with four returning starters led by preseason All-Americans Juan Dixon and Baxter. They even turned up the heat on themselves by stating the successful way to close the season was in the Final Four.
"It's probably the same feeling as before," said forward Tahj Holden, who before the tournament said it would be a "failure" not to reach the Final Four. "But even more satisfying because there was a lot more pressure on us to this point. [Expectations] came from us as well as the media and everybody else in the country. So it's real satisfying to get there and prove everybody right."
Maryland (30-4) notched its first 30-win season Sunday and the right to meet Kansas, the Midwest Region champion, in a national semifinal Saturday night in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. These Terps, who lost to Duke last season in the semifinals, will try to go even further.
Some wondered how the Terps would cope with the preseason adulation. The hype temporarily lost steam with a season-opening loss to Arizona. But Maryland has been winning regularly since. The Terps have won 17 of 18 games going into the clash with the Jayhawks, and repeatedly show amazing resiliency in tight games like Connecticut leading with less than four minutes left before Maryland's experience took over and upperclassmen made crucial plays like Dixon's bold 3-pointer to tie the game and junior Steve Blake's uncanny trey to seal the victory.
"People were telling us in September when school started that we should go to the Final Four this year because we had seven [players in the 10-man rotation] back," coach Gary Williams said. "A lot of teams out there have veteran players that aren't going to the Final Four. I really respect what our players did to handle that type of pressure, being picked top five all year and to go back to the Final Four. We made it back."
There were plenty of games before last weekend's nerve-racking wins over Kentucky and Connecticut that displayed the Terps' determination. There was the close call at Georgia Tech, the relentless blowout over Duke at Cole Field House and the 90-89 comeback win over Wake Forest. But the one that solidified their unflappable confidence came at Virginia Jan. 31.
Maryland was out of sync most of the night and trailed the Cavaliers by nine with just more than three minutes to go. The Terps showed their grit by silencing the hostile crowd with an amazing comeback, capped by two 3-point bombs from Drew Nicholas and Dixon's winning basket. The Terps made 25 of 26 free throws and left Charlottesville with a swagger, while the Cavaliers appeared devastated.
"It said a lot about Maryland that we finally learned how to win close games," said Dixon, about the fourth victory in a 13-game winning streak. "We've grown a lot since last year. With [starting seniors] Byron [Mouton], Lonny and I as the leaders on this team, we've experienced it hands-on on the court. A lot of guys followed our lead, and we've been able to pull out close games."
Mouton remembers wondering what direction the team would go after a 99-78 loss at Duke on Jan. 17. The Terps saw a close game turn into a blowout in the last 10 minutes, and Mouton knew his club's response to that defeat would be critical. The small forward had visions of last season's freefall, which came after blowing a 10-point lead with 54 seconds left to Duke in a loss at Cole Field House.
"I was kind of concerned about that loss," Mouton said. "It wasn't as emotional as last year's loss to Duke, but it was a loss. We thought we were better than they were or as good as they are. We handled that situation perfectly especially the situation with Virginia. We were mature enough to win that game. Nobody panicked. Coach didn't panic. Everybody was on the same page and we came back to win that game. And we were down by 10 to Wake Forest, and came back to win that game. We are doing the right things at the right times."
That was the case again over the weekend in two tight wins. Maryland made 21 of 24 (87.5 percent) free throws against Kentucky, including 14 of 15 in the second half. The Terps held a 3-point lead with under five minutes left. That's when Maryland went on a 10-2 run, started by big men Baxter and Wilcox each making a pair of free throws to ice the victory.
Sunday, it was Connecticut exchanging blow for blow in a battle of wills until another late surge. The Huskies led before Dixon's 3-point, in-your-face dagger tied the game with 3:53 left. A power move and inside basket by Baxter gave Maryland the lead at 81-79 with 2:08 left to start a game-winning 9-1 run, where the Terps made all six of their free throws sandwiched around Blake's clutch 3-pointer. Maryland made 31 of 35 free throws, including 19 of 20 after intermission.
"It's unbelievable to play two games like this to get to the Final Four," Williams said. "You need a special team because the pressure is enormous."


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