ATLANTA - The final buzzer sounded, Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter tumbled to the Georgia Dome floor locked in a joyous embrace, and the Maryland Terrapins had completed their historic journey by winning the first men's national basketball championship in school history.
The Terps have shown their mettle in so many ways throughout this marvelous season, and the Indiana Hoosiers brought out yet another layer of toughness in Maryland last night. Indiana used tenacious defense and outside shooting to push the Terps to the brink of a stunning upset.
But in the end, the Terps were too strong for the upstart Hoosiers, who brought a Cinderella story to Atlanta in search of their sixth NCAA crown. In the end, the senior tandem of Dixon and Baxter and Maryland's size and stubborn will carried the evening, as the Terps pulled away in the final eight minutes of a ragged affair to beat Indiana, 64-52, before 53,406.
The victory turned the court into a party scene, which culminated with the Terps cutting down the nets for the third and final time this season. Dixon, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player by a unanimous vote after leading the Terps with 18 points and finishing the NCAA tournament with 155, cut the final strand of one net and flung it about 30 feet to a group of his teammates.
Coach Gary Williams, who finally got to taste the game's sweetest fruit after laboring for 24 seasons, including the past 13 at Maryland, twirled the other net several times and pumped his fist at the Terps faithful in the stands behind the team bench. Minutes later, Williams, wearing a NCAA championship cap, held his grandson at midcourt.
"This is a great thrill. We really had to grind," Williams said. "We had to go through some great teams to get here, and Indiana played some great defense on us. The players hung in there. I'm really proud of them. I've never done this before, so I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be like. I'm really happy. But I'm really tired."
Fittingly, Maryland (32-4), which closed the season by winning 19 of its last 20 games, had to dig down deep to get it done. The Terps started fast, bolting to a 23-11 lead, as they ruled the inside with the bulk of Baxter and Chris Wilcox and the outside touch of Dixon. But Indiana, which had relied on three-point shooting and defense while winning the South Regional as a No. 5 seed, refused to fade without a fight.
Indiana (25-12) trailed for nearly all of the game's first 30 minutes before inching ahead 44-42 on a layup by forward Jared Jeffries with 9:53 left. But that's when Dixon and Baxter stepped up to pull the Terps over the hump and into the history books.
Dixon, who was held in check by guard Dane Fife without a point for nearly a 20-minute stretch spanning both halves, did what he has done for three years. He hit the big shots. First, he broke his scoring drought by taking a feed from point guard Steve Blake and making a 23-foot three-point shot from the left wing to put the Terps back in front 45-44.
Then, after Baxter made two free throws to pad the lead, Dixon answered a 15-foot jumper by Fife with a spectacular 18-foot fall-away to put Maryland on top 49-46 with 8:11 left. With that, Maryland was off on a 17-3 run that would seal a hard-earned crown.
"I am so proud of everyone on this team. Lonny and me beat the odds and led our team to a title," Dixon said. "I can't put into words how excited I am now. I'm speechless."
"We definitely wanted to give Coach a ring," said Baxter, who atoned for his ineffective, foul-marred semifinal performance against Kansas on Saturday night by recording 15 points and game highs of 14 rebounds and three blocked shots. "He came in and turned around the program tremendously. It's about time he got what he deserved."
This was far from a classic victory. It featured 16 turnovers by each team, including seven by Dixon. It featured another shaky game by Blake, who slipped the past two weekends, but had the help he needed from guys backups Drew Nicholas.
The Terps were sloppy and tentative on offense, and had serious problems containing Indiana shooters like Fife (11 points) and guard Kyle Hornsby (14 points).
But Maryland did the dirty work to finish the season in the only way it could have envisioned. The Terps wore down the Hoosiers on the boards with their muscle, grabbing 46 rebounds to Indiana's 32. Maryland made 20 of 28 free throws, including nine of its last 10.
Maryland leaned on its defense to nail down the crown. The Terps held Indiana to two baskets over the game's final 8:30.
The Terps won with senior forward Byron Mouton keeping key loose balls alive in the closing minutes with tremendous hustle. They won with five different players putting away the game on the foul line. They won by maintaining their composure in the face of another dogged opponent.
"I'm tired, but I'm more relieved than tired. It's a big relief, winning this championship we wanted since last year," said junior forward Tahj Holden. "It would have crushed me probably if we didn't win. I'm sure that after four, five, six years I would have gotten over it."
"I'm at the point where you're so happy you could cry. I hope everybody in this room at some point can feel like this," said Nicholas, Maryland's junior backup guard. "This is about growing up, going to college and becoming a man. It doesn't get any better than this.
"We took this NCAA tournament like a job. Now we can step back and say we're satisfied."
The Hoosiers, who were outplayed decisively during the game's first 10 minutes, fed off a 14-8 run that closed the first half, fed off of their three-point shooters, and capitalized on a turnover-prone Maryland offense to forge a 40-40 tie with 11:43 left in the contest. That was the first tie since 2-2.
Fife got the Hoosiers going with back-to-back three-pointers, as Indiana began the half by countering Maryland's inside strength from the wings. Wilcox and Baxter made short bank shots to push the Terps in front 37-30. Fife's three-pointers cut the Terps' advantage to 35-30 and 37-33 with 15:05 left.
Indiana finally caught up to the Terps on a three-pointer by Hornsby that cut the lead to 40-38. Then, after Dixon missed a three-point attempt, Jeff Newton tipped in a missed three-pointer by Hornsby to tie it.
Jeffries then schooled Wilcox on back-to-back possessions by beating him for layups, the second of which gave the Hoosiers their first lead of the game at 44-42 with 9:53 left.
It didn't last, because Dixon reawakened by hitting the biggest shot of the game. His three-pointer from the left wing put the Terps back in front 45-44 with 9:41 to go.
"I was trying to be patient," Dixon said of his key basket. "Let the game come to me. Steve [Blake] set me up and I made a big shot. ... Me and Lonny, we led our team to a national title. ... I can't put it into words. We were consistent the whole year and look at where we are today."
Not that Indiana went quietly. After Baxter made two free throws, Fife's 15-footer pulled the Hoosiers to 47-46, but the Terps responded with a 17-3 run that gave them a 64-49 lead with 1:43 left. Fueling the decisive run was a 9-for-10 show at the free-throw line by five different players.
After getting through early-game jitters and a spurt of turnovers, Maryland settled down and began pounding the Hoosiers inside with their bulk, and hitting them with defensive pressure that threatened to turn the game into a rout early. Only Indiana's three-point shooting kept the Hoosiers within striking distance early, as the Terps built a 23-11 advantage midway through the first half.
The Terps soon went into a funk, failing to score on nine of their next 10 possessions, as the Hoosiers crept within 25-18. Wilcox finally broke Maryland's drought by banking in a difficult fall-away jumper in the lane, and Ryan Randle followed with a short fadeaway to put the Terps in front 29-18 with 1:40 to go.
Maryland then stumbled to the end of the half by allowing a 7-2 run. Hornsby made a three, failed to convert a four-point play by missing a foul shot, but the struggling Blake botched the in-bounds pass, resulting in a turnover and layup by A.J. Moye. Blake, who committed three of Maryland's 10 first-half turnovers, drove the lane and pulled up to sink an eight-footer for a 31-23 lead.
But Tom Coverdale drove the lane and banked in a one-handed jumper at the buzzer, cutting the Terps' halftime lead to 31-25.