ATLANTA — ATLANTA - It's no longer a dream, no longer a goal they have been obsessed with reaching for the past year.
The Maryland Terrapins are about to play for the first national championship in school history.
Last night before 53,378 at the Georgia Dome, the Terps overcame a night when senior star center Lonny Baxter was nearly invisible with foul trouble, battled through a game in which they nearly blew a 20-point second-half lead, and never stopped pushing until they eliminated the Kansas Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament semifinals, 97-88.
Maryland, after riding a career-high 33 points from guard Juan Dixon and outstanding efforts from forwards Chris Wilcox and Tahj Holden, will make its first appearance in the NCAA championship game when it faces Indiana tomorrow night.
What a night it was for the Terps (31-4) to show the talent, depth and heart that has made this the best team in school history. What a night it was for the Terps, who stared down the team many had picked to win the tournament, even after Maryland stumbled late by watching an 83-63 lead shrink to 92-88 with 20 seconds left.
And what a night it was for Dixon, who managed to top his first two superb weekends of NCAA tournament play with his best effort yet.
Dixon, the leading scorer in school history, continued his torrid March shooting by making 10 of 18 shots, including five of 11 from three-point range. He scored 19 points in the first half, when Maryland stormed back to turn a 13-2 deficit into a 44-37 halftime lead.
Dixon added 14 in the second half, including six points in the final 1:11 to help the Terps avoid a collapse that no doubt made Maryland fans recall last year's Final Four flop against Duke. The Terps blew a 22-point first-half lead in the semifinals before losing to the eventual national champions.
This time, Maryland closed the deal for its 18th victory in the past 19 games by handing Kansas (33-4) only its second defeat since Jan. 12.
"I tried not to think about it, but I was. I found myself looking at the clock a little bit," said Dixon, referring to thoughts of last year's Duke loss. "I felt like I was in a rhythm. I've been shooting well in domes, and I just kept it going tonight. I'm a winner. I've been a winner all my life. I've beaten all odds since I was a kid. I believe in myself."
Count Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich among the believers.
"He just played great. He shoots, he's quick, he moves without the ball, he's a great defender," Hinrich said of the Calvert Hall graduate. "What else do you want from a guard?"
But last night's historic victory went well beyond Dixon. This was about the bench that has carried the Terps at many stops and about a team prevailing without its foundation.
Baxter, coming off his second consecutive regional MVP award, did not have it against the Jayhawks. He committed two fouls in the first three minutes, never got into a rhythm, and finished with four points and seven rebounds in only 14 minutes.
No matter. Maryland never flinched, starting with Wilcox, the sophomore power forward who might be playing his last collegiate game tomorrow night after out-playing All-America junior forward Drew Gooden. Wilcox finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots. Gooden only became a factor late, when the Jayhawks were desperately trying to catch the Terps.
"All I've been hearing about is All-America this and All-America that. A lot of that just dawned on me, and I just went out and played my game," Wilcox said. "This shows you how we can win games in a lot of different ways. I know our team's chemistry. Now I just want to go out and play great in my last game."
Then there was the bench of Holden and Ryan Randle up front and Drew Nicholas in the backcourt, which combined for 22 points and nine rebounds. Nicholas contributed seven points and two assists in 23 minutes. Holden finished with 13 points and five rebounds in 24 invaluable minutes. In all, the Terps blocked nine shots.
"They did a great job inside," said Kansas forward Nick Collison, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, both team highs. "They really set the tone with those blocked shots. People talked about how this was going to be a big matchup of inside games, and they really outplayed us."
Gooden, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, added, "They had guys to replace [Baxter]. It was like Lonny was still on the court."
The Terps buckled but did not break in the late going. They took ill-advised shots, committed ill-advised fouls and missed several free throws - including four by Steve Blake, who also missed six of seven shots from the field - that helped the Jayhawks put together their furious comeback. But in the end, Kansas blinked, as guard Jeff Boschee called a timeout the Jayhawks did not have with 19 seconds left, one second after Gooden's three-pointer had cut the Maryland lead to 92-88.
Kansas was charged with a technical foul, Dixon made one of two free throws, and the Terps calmly sandwiched four free throws by senior forward Byron Mouton and Nicholas around a missed three-pointer by Boschee to seal the victory.
"To win on a night when maybe a couple of our guys didn't have their 'A' game is a great feeling, because Kansas is a great team," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "But the thing we have as a team this year is courage. This team has never gone away in a tough situation."
The Terps matched the furious pace Kansas loves to play. Despite the struggles of Blake, who recovered to record nine of his 11 assists in the second half, Maryland countered the Jayhawks' three-guard sets effectively, threw some zone defenses at Kansas with success, and were able to break through the zones and box-and-one sets the Jayhawks employed while trying to contain Dixon and keep Maryland's big men in check.
In the meantime, all eight Terps who played scored, and Mouton picked up the slack by scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds. It was only the second time in the past six games Mouton has scored in double figures.
Gary Williams, who has coached at four schools over 24 seasons, has resurrected a once-moribund Maryland program during a 13-year run at College Park, is enjoying his second Final Four experience, and is 40 minutes from tasting the ultimate victory.
While advancing through the Final Four, Maryland kept Kansas from doing so for the third time since the Jayhawks won the 1988 title, and the third time under 14-year coach Roy Williams. Kansas was last in the Final Four in 1993 under Williams, who is still searching for his first national crown.
"Yeah, it hurts to not be playing Monday night," he said. "It just hurts because I'm not going to get a chance to coach them in the national championship game, not going to get the chance to coach them anymore."