ATLANTA - The University of Maryland put its name in the history books and brought a championship banner to College Park last night as the Terps officially became an elite member of college basketball.
It wasn't pretty. Actually, it may have been one of the ugliest championship games in NCAA history as Maryland defeated Indiana, 64-52, last night before a crowd of 53,406 at the Georgia Dome to capture its first national title.
But who cares about cosmetics?
The Terps did what they had to do. They did what Len Bias, Keith Booth and Steve Francis couldn't do. They succeeded where Tom McMillen and Len Elmore failed. Buck and Albert didn't get it done, and Lefty never lived up to his promise of making Maryland the UCLA of the East.
Oh, what a run.
To win its first national championship, Maryland ran through some of the most storied programs in college basketball. The Terps beat Kentucky and Connecticut in the regionals, and Kansas and Indiana in the Final Four. That's three of the best coaches in the game, too, in Tubby Smith, Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams.
It's no wonder Terps players hugged at the final horn with forward Chris Wilcox hugging point guard Steve Blake, and then hoisting him high in the air.
The entire team.
Most Valuable Player? Juan Dixon, who else?
"I don't think that anyone can guard him one-on-one," Indiana forward Kyle Hornsby said.
The senior shooting guard from Baltimore and Calvert Hall high school finished with 18 points, hitting six of nine from the field and four of four from the foul line. In the tournament, Dixon scored 29, 29, 19, 27, 33 and 18 points. No one in the past five years has carried a team through a tournament like Dixon.
There were times here at the Final Four that he became an assistant coach, but he never overstepped his bounds. The final curtain call belonged to head coach Gary Williams, whose program was on life support when he first took over 13 years ago.
"This is a great thrill," Williams said. "Not many coaches get a chance to coach three great seniors [Dixon, Byron Mouton and Lonny Baxter] like this. It was a thrill for me to watch these guys work this hard and get their reward. There were a lot of people involved in this. It took all our administration, our staff and everyone involved with the program to make this happen."
Minutes before the Terps were presented with the national championship plaque, Maryland fans chanted Williams' name, and then followed it with a chorus of "We're No. 1."
This was a team built in the mold of Williams. Intense, confident and with a chip on its shoulders. After blowing a 22-point lead to Duke last year in the Final Four semifinals, every one of them said they had only one goal, and that was to win a national championship.
And they never blinked under pressure.
There were some nervous moments last night. Blake was erratic again as he has been in the postseason. Wilcox and Baxter looked tired in the first half, and reserve forward Tahj Holden got into foul trouble.
But with the score 51-46, Holden made two foul shots with 5:04 remaining. Reserve guard Drew Nicholas made it 55-49 on a layup with 3:33 left. Baxter converted one of two foul shots 30 seconds later, and Dixon made two more foul shots with 2:43 remaining.
When Blake converted two foul shots with 2:13 left to put Maryland ahead 60-49, it was goodbye Hoosiers, hello national championship.
Baxter finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, 12 on the defensive end. Wilcox added 10 points and seven rebounds. Typical Maryland. The Terps have been balanced all year, a team with no superstars, just role players and underachievers who turned the Terps into the nation's best college basketball team in 2002.
"I am so proud of everyone on this team," Dixon said. "Lonny and me beat the odds and led our team to a title. I can't put into words how excited I am now. Coach Williams took a chance on me and I thank him for that. This has been a great experience."
Maryland had a chance to take control of the game in the first half when the Terps went up 19-8 with 11:10 remaining. They maintained an eight- to 11-point lead for the next two minutes, but fell apart after Wilcox scored to give Maryland a 23-11 lead with 9:26 left.
The Terps went almost the next six minutes without a field goal, and Indiana cut Maryland's lead to 31-25 at the half on a layup by Hoosiers guard Tom Coverdale at the buzzer.
Maryland looked tired during the drought, especially Baxter and Wilcox. The Terps also committed 10 turnovers in the first half, and looked nothing like a team that wanted to finish off Indiana early to win a national championship.
Dixon led Maryland in scoring at the half with 11 while Indiana had balanced scoring. Most of the Hoosiers' points came from three-point range where they connected on five of eight attempts. If Indiana could have made foul shots, the score would have been closer at the end. The Hoosiers were just 2-for-7 in free-throw attempts.
But it all became irrelevant at the end. The Terps are national champions.
"This is the greatest feeling," Holden said. "This is exactly what we've worked hard all year for. It wasn't pretty, but we had guys making plays when we had to."
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