ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Gary Williams does not have to answer that question anymore.
The Maryland Terrapins, led by a Herculean performance from junior center Lonny Baxter, made sure of that last night by giving Williams, Maryland's 12-year coach and proud alum, an unforgettable gift.
Believe it. The Terps are headed for the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight. Believe it. They are one victory away from the first Final Four in school history.
Before last night, Maryland had failed four times in seven previous trips to the NCAAs under Williams to get past the Sweet 16. That was before the third-seeded Terps, using depth, size and a world of heart, stared down and beat up physical, 10th-seeded Georgetown and pulled away to a 76-66 victory in the West Regional semifinals before 18,008 at the Arrowhead Pond.
Baxter led the charge against the Hoyas' ballyhooed front line by destroying Georgetown with 26 points and 14 rebounds, each a game high. He picked the ideal time to play his best game of the season.
"A lot of people didn't expect us to get past the Sweet 16. A lot of people didn't expect us to get here," Baxter said. "But here we are. This is it."
Maryland (24-10) will play top-seeded Stanford for the regional championship tomorrow afternoon, with the winner advancing to Minneapolis next week in college basketball's grand event.
"I'm so happy for Coach Williams. All of the great players and great teams that he's had, and this is the one that got it done," said junior guard Juan Dixon, who had 13 points, five rebounds and three steals and was near tears in the locker room.
"In my basketball career, this is definitely the best," said point guard Steve Blake. "It's a special feeling for me, my teammates and the coaches. It's an overwhelming feeling."
Maryland, which has not been to the Elite Eight since former coach Lefty Driesell guided them there in 1975, earned a trip to the regional finals by beating Georgetown at its own game. The Hoyas, sporting an array of big men in the 7-foot range, were supposed to smother Maryland on the boards, stifle their shooters with a 2-3 zone defense and frustrate the Terps by slowing the tempo.
It didn't happen.
Maryland out-rebounded the taller Hoyas (25-8) by a 51-41 margin and held Georgetown to 30.8 percent shooting. Maryland went to its own zone defense and turned up the pressure by forcing 11 turnovers in a second half that left Georgetown's frontcourt collecting more fouls than points.
The Terps, who scored the last seven points of the first half to take a 38-36 lead and never trailed again, survived a 1-for-11 shooting performance by Terence Morris, who had four points and six rebounds in 20 minutes. They won their ninth game in their past 10 outings by getting yet another stellar effort from their bench.
Maybe Maryland should slice up another game ball and give it to the backups. Sophomore forward Tahj Holden was sensational, with 10 points and five rebounds. His fast-break layup gave the Terps a 54-45 cushion with 11:45 left. His hanging, reverse layup put the Hoya -- led by Lake Clifton graduate Kevin Braswell's 17 points -- in a 61-56 hole with 5:11 left.
With Baxter and backup forward Danny Miller (seven points, three rebounds, three assists) leading the stretch run, Maryland allowed Georgetown to get no closer than 63-59 on Braswell's three-pointer with 4:55 left.
Maryland finished off the Hoyas with a 13-7 run, as Georgetown was reduced to shooting long jumpers. Baxter, who hurt the Hoyas with some monster jams, scored four points down the stretch to finish the job.
"Every time I caught the ball, I was going to the hole aggressively," Baxter said. "I knew they were big. I just tried to attack as much as I could."
Baxter outscored the entire Hoyas front line. Center Ruben Boumtje Boumtje went scoreless and fouled out. Forward Mike Sweetney had 10 points, but only two after halftime. Forward Gerald Riley shot 2-for-8 and scored five points. Only backup Lee Scruggs (10 points) showed up.
The whole scene left a sweat-soaked Williams dancing in the locker room with his players. With six seconds left and the game decided, Williams walked down the bench to congratulate players. He high-fived Dixon. He then bumped chests with the 6-8, 260-pound Baxter.
"That's the first time Lonny let up all night, which is a good thing. I'd still be out on the court if he hadn't," Williams said. "It was a blur at the end. I just wanted to make all of the players feel like they were a part of it.
"I'm happy for the team. This is significant for me and the school and the fans. They deserve this. The school is too good of a school not to get this."
Williams had never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 before the Terps delivered him there last night. Twice at Boston College in the early 1980s, he had failed to reach the round of eight.
"I thought there were things Gary did to hurt us," said Georgetown coach Craig Esherick, who took the Hoyas to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996.
"The zone took away our momentum. His full-court press bothered us. Lonny played great. I was not dissatisfied by the way our guys played. We battled the entire game. They forced us to do things we were not comfortable doing."
The Terps scored the final seven points of the first half, then opened the second half with a 16-9 run, as Baxter capitalized on a tremendous first half by killing the foul-prone Hoyas inside.
His slam gave Maryland a 44-38 lead with 17:13 to go. Baxter than grabbed an offensive rebound in the lane and brought the Maryland fans to their feet with a thunderous jam that made it 47-40 with 15:48 left.
The final moments of the first half may have been the game's most crucial. Georgetown frustrated the Terps early, particularly Morris, who had four of his first five shot attempts blocked. Maryland also committed nine turnovers in the first half, which the Hoyas led for much of the way.
Nicholas, having replaced the erratic Blake at point guard, gave Maryland a major spark by breaking down the Georgetown defense. His runner pulled Maryland within 32-29. His two free throws closed the gap to 36-33.
And after Mike Mardesich (five points, three rebounds) tied the game at 36 on a 10-foot, turnaround jumper in the lane with 1:07 left in the half, Nicholas missed a driving layup, which Wilcox followed with a missed dunk, which Byron Mouton finished by making a short finger roll just before the horn sounded.
Mouton leaped several times for joy, and Maryland left the floor with a 38-36 lead. The Terps were on their way.
"I'm glad to get this win for Coach. Now you guys can stop harassing him," said a smiling Nicholas. "Every night, somebody different steps up for us. Once again, it happened tonight."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun