ATLANTA - For more than 39 minutes against Georgia Tech at Alexander Memorial Coliseum yesterday, Maryland shooting guard Juan Dixon was one of the main attractions.
But Dixon, one of the nation's premier players and the heart of the No. 4 Terrapins men's basketball team, was merely warming up for an amazing display over the final 31 seconds of a gutty, foul-laden 92-87 victory over the unranked Yellow Jackets.
Without Dixon, the Terps might have fallen for the third straight year at Georgia Tech, which erased much of a 16-point Maryland lead in the first half, then cut a 12-point deficit to one in the second half and made the home crowd of 6,332 believe an upset was possible.
Maryland (13-2, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), however, kept pace with Wake Forest atop the conference standings, won its fifth straight game overall, and set up Thursday's much-anticipated showdown at Duke on a positive note because the kid from Calvert Hall refused to let it happen any other way.
Dixon began his theatrical finish with 31 seconds left, as the Terps clung to an 85-83 lead and were in danger of losing it after center Lonny Baxter had committed a turnover by throwing an interior pass into the hands of Georgia Tech forward Robert Brooks.
After Brooks threw an outlet pass to Yellow Jackets point guard Tony Akins, Dixon swooped in behind Akins and stole the ball out of his left hand near midcourt. Dixon dribbled across the line, then lobbed a 40-foot alley-oop pass to forward Chris Wilcox, who beat Brooks to the ball before jamming it home for an 87-83 lead.
Dixon then finished the Yellow Jackets with another facet of his game by making four straight free throws in the final 10 seconds. It was quite an exclamation point to another superb effort.
Dixon, the second-leading free-throw shooter in the league (90.4 percent), finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs. He also led Maryland with three steals and added four assists in 38 minutes.
Let the accolades begin, starting with Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt.
"Our effort was certainly worthy of winning, but we got beat by a great player who makes great plays in a lot of different ways," said Hewitt, who watched Dixon grab eight rebounds in the second half, make seven of eight free throws overall, and burn the Yellow Jackets with five three-pointers, including a couple from beyond 25 feet.
"If Juan Dixon is not making a three, he's making a great pass, or at the end there, it was him that made that steal," Hewitt said. "At the end of the shot clock he would knock down a shot or he'd make a play to get them an easy basket. He's a great, great player."
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "He's as tough any kid I've ever had. He refuses to lose. That steal he made was an incredible play. He gets on the foul line and you just think he's going to make them. I don't say a lot of pretty things about my players or blow smoke about them. For what [Dixon] has done for Maryland, I don't think any player [in the nation] has had greater impact over the last four years on any team."
On a day when Maryland ran into foul problems that limited players like point guard Steve Blake (four points, five assists, seven turnovers in 25 minutes) and reserve forward Tahj Holden (three points in 21 minutes), and the Yellow Jackets (7-10, 0-4) belied their youth by effectively attacking the more seasoned Terps inside and got Akins loose outside in the second half for 16 of his team-high 24 points, Dixon closed the deal.
The Terps, who got 23 points from Baxter and 19 from forward Byron Mouton - each of whom finished with four fouls while Blake fouled out with 20 seconds left - thought they would walk away with an easy victory after shooting 68 percent in the first half and taking a 48-35 halftime lead.
To its credit, Georgia Tech, which plays only one senior and no juniors, countered a 41-30 rebounding disadvantage and a 20-for-22 foul-shooting display by the Terps in the second half by playing a sharp transition game and by playing Maryland's game - pounding the ball inside to freshman forwards Ed Nelson and Isma'il Muhammad and sophomore forward Clarence Moore. They combined for 39 points and 20 rebounds.
Maryland answered a 6-0 Georgia Tech run to start the second half by pulling away to a 63-51 lead with 12:33 remaining, then got five straight points from Mouton after the Yellow Jackets had closed to 63-59 with 9:56 to go. Georgia Tech then forced two Maryland turnovers during an 8-0 spurt that featured back-to-back threes by Akins, cutting Maryland's lead to 68-67 with eight minutes left.
The game turned into a foul-shooting contest after that, and the Yellow Jackets showed their inexperience by missing five of eight attempts during a five-minute stretch, while the Terps protected their slim lead.
Then came Dixon's time to calculate and shine again.
"I don't think [Akins] saw me. I was creeping in behind him, baiting him," said Dixon, who moved into fifth place on the school's career-scoring list with 1,823 points. "I waited until he put the ball in his left hand, got that steal, and Chris [Wilcox] put the finger up [signaling for the lob pass]. That was a risky play. I saw him pointing and said, 'Should I throw it?' I prayed he would catch it."
Said Williams, with a grin: "[Dixon] knew he'd be dead if we didn't win. But that's what makes Juan what he is. He's got a lot of guts."
Added Baxter: "We knew this wasn't going to be a cakewalk. We got outworked in some rebounding and some loose-ball situations. But we got the win and Juan was huge. That steal, that's one of the things we had to have to win this game. It's one of those things that the great players do."
Maryland Min FG FT Reb A F Pt
Mouton 34 7-10 5-6 3 4 4 19
Baxter 27 6-10 11-14 9 2 4 23
Wilcox 22 5-8 2-3 4 1 3 12
Dixon 38 7-16 7-8 10 4 3 26
Blake 25 0-2 4-4 1 5 5 4
Collins 1 0-0 0-0 0 0 1 0
Nicholas 23 1-4 0-0 0 4 1 3
Randle 9 1-2 0-0 5 0 3 2
Holden 21 1-2 0-2 4 1 4 3
Totals 200 28-54 29-37 41 21 28 92
Percentages: FG-.519, FT-.784. 3-point goals: 7-17, .412 (Mouton 0-1, Dixon 5-10, Blake 0-2, Nicholas 1-3, Holden 1-1). Team rebounds: 5. Blocked shots: 2 (Baxter, Randle). Turnovers: 14 (Blake 7, Dixon 3, Baxter, Mouton, Wilcox). Steals: 5 (Dixon 3, Baxter, Nicholas).
Georgia Tech Min FG FT Reb A F Pt
Moore 32 2-7 7-13 8 1 3 11
E Nelson 34 6-9 6-10 8 1 4 18
Brooks 21 1-2 2-2 5 1 4 4
Akins 37 7-14 5-6 1 8 3 24
Lewis 35 4-10 1-2 1-1 1 1 12
Elder 4 1-1 0-0 0 0 3 2
Muhammad 19 4-6 2-5 4 2 3 10
Lane 12 1-7 2-2 1 1 3 4
McHenry 6 1-2 0-0 0 0 2 2
Totals 200 27-58 25-40 30 17 26 87
Percentages: FG-.466, FT-.625. 3-point goals: 8-20, .400 (Moore 0-1, Akins 5-9, Lewis 3-6, Lane 0-3, Mchenry 0-1). Team rebounds: 2. Blocked shots: 2 (Moore, E Nelson). Turnovers: 11 (Akins 2, Elder 2, Lane 2, Lewis 2, Moore 2, Muhammad). Steals: 8 (Lewis 4, Akins, Brooks, E Nelson, Moore). A: 6,332.
Maryland 48 44 - 92
Georgia Tech 35 52 - 87