WASHINGTON - The Maryland Terrapins had too much at stake and too many weapons for this confrontation to play out any other way.
Start with senior guard Juan Dixon, who gave the home crowd everything it wanted yesterday at MCI Center by scoring a game-high 29 points and setting a school career scoring record. Move on to sophomore forward Chris Wilcox, whose power moves and dunks energized the fans and his teammates. Throw in the Terps' withering defensive pressure, inside brawn and the desire to play the game at their speed.
Wisconsin might have thought and hoped it had a chance for a while, but five minutes into the second half of yesterday's 87-57 East Regional rout of the eighth-seeded Badgers, the top-seeded Terps already had removed all doubt about which team was moving on from the NCAA tournament's second round.
The Terps, looking more businesslike and determined than they have in more than a week, brought their Final Four faces to the court yesterday, not to mention a superior collection of experienced talent.
And after taking control of the game in the closing minutes of the first half, then knocking out the Badgers with a 17-3 run to open the second half, Maryland is two victories away from making its second consecutive trip to college basketball's biggest stage.
Maryland (28-4), which is going to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in the past nine years under coach Gary Williams, will face fourth-seeded Kentucky on Friday night at approximately 10 p.m. in the East Regional semifinals at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. No. 2 Connecticut (26-6) and No. 11 Southern Illinois (28-7) will play the first game at 7:38 p.m.
The Terps tuned up for their trip north by recording the most lopsided victory in the school's NCAA tournament history.
"I think we feel like we are unbeatable right now," said Dixon, who needed seven points to pass the late Len Bias as Maryland's all-time leading scorer and matched his 29-point effort in Maryland's opening-round victory over Siena. "With confidence like that, we can go a long way and right now we feel like we are unstoppable."
"The thing about our team, from Juan Dixon on, is that everybody is about winning," Williams said. "We are going to win the game any way we can, and that was our attitude coming into today's game. We have stayed with that all year. When we rely on that will to win, we are a really good basketball team."
Maryland, which won for the 15th time in its past 16 games, looked nothing like the team that stagnated in last weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The Terps clearly felt the urgency of the moment, with so many fans roaring in their favor, and devoured the Badgers (19-13) with too much defense, too many athletes, too much speed and too much Dixon.
This contest pretty much came down to about 15 minutes of Maryland's overwhelming self-assertion.
During an up-and-down opening sequence in the first half, Maryland probed the Badgers with their full-court press with some success, and shot the ball decently, but looked a bit anxious in a tight battle that the Badgers led 23-19 with 6:39 left in the half. Only the post play and two nasty dunks by Wilcox seemed to keep Maryland loose.
Then, the rest of the team warmed up, Maryland's depth and quickness began to take over, and Wisconsin had no chance.
Senior center Lonny Baxter and Wilcox started a 19-7 half-ending run with layups. Then, while the Badgers went cold from the field, Maryland flashed its guard play. Backup Drew Nicholas, point guard Steve Blake and Dixon hit consecutive three-point baskets, giving the Terps a 32-25 advantage with 4:48 left.
Wisconsin guard Devin Harris answered with a three, leaving the Terps with a 32-28 lead. Maryland scored six of the final eight points to leave the floor with a 38-30 halftime lead, but the Terps were just getting warmed up. The Badgers opened the second half by missing their first three shots and committing two turnovers, and the Terps swooped in for the kill with a 17-3 run that gave Maryland a 55-33 lead with 13:39 to go.
Dixon accounted for 13 points during that telling stretch, when the Badgers appeared to roll over and Maryland began thinking about going to Syracuse.
"Whenever you smell blood, it just comes in bunches. Once you get one turnover, two turnovers, the scoring becomes a little easier," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "It's just an emotional thing that takes its toll. It was very difficult for us to get re-energized after their one big explosion."
"It was only a matter of time before we made our run. It came late, but then we turned the game around," said Baxter, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots. "Once we made our run [early in the second half], there were some sad looks on their faces, and we just continued to pound away at them."
The Terps pounded away in many ways. Wilcox broke a recent slump by scoring 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds. Wisconsin was no match for him or Baxter on the glass. Nicholas scored eight points, including a pair of early three-pointers that gave the Terps a dose of assurance that this would be their day.
Dixon, who shot 10-for-19, made four of his last five three-pointers, grabbed five rebounds and added three assists and two steals, played like a man possessed with winning a national title.
And Maryland's defense, which had not exactly sparkled of late, got serious again. Byron Mouton and Nicholas combined to limit three-point shooting specialist Kirk Penney to nine points on 3-for-14 shooting. The Terps forced 14 turnovers and collected nine steals to spark their fast break, which the Badgers could not contain.
"We had about 20 minutes there where that's as good as we can play defense," Williams said. "We're the type of team that feeds off of our defense. I'm really pleased with the way we dug down after the first 10 minutes and got it up today. When we do that, we're really good."
The swagger had never truly left this Maryland team, which has won routinely by sizable margins all season. But in listening to the voices in the locker room, there was a sense that the confidence was fully restored, as the Terps begin to press through on the mission they have talked about since day one of practice in October.
"We're excited, but we are where we have wanted to be all year," Nicholas said.
Said Baxter: "We know we have a great team. A lot of people are expecting us to do great things. Our goal is to keep moving ahead and go as far as we can."
---BaltimoreSun.com updated this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun