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‘That should have been an NCAA championship game’: A look back at Maryland’s 2002 Elite Eight win over UConn

Maryland's men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon and senior guard Darryl Morsell talks about the team celebration after being selected for the NCAA tournament.

WEST LAFAYETTE — When the Maryland men’s basketball team faced UConn in early December 2001 as part of the BB & T Classic in Washington, the Terps pulled away from the Huskies in the second half for a 77-65 win, displaying the maturity and versatility that had many touting the team as a favorite to return to the Final Four.

“Maryland gave our kids a good lesson on how to play team basketball. … They’re obviously one of the best teams in the country,” former UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after the game.

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But when former Maryland assistant Jimmy Patsos scouted the team three months later as a potential NCAA tournament opponent, he saw a more calloused group.

“I didn’t want to scare anybody but I’m sitting awake at nights, saying, ‘man, I hope we beat Kentucky [in the Sweet 16] but man is this Connecticut team really good,’” Patsos said in a recent interview.

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On Saturday, the Terps will play the Huskies at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, in their NCAA tournament opening-round game. The matchup will come almost 19 years to the date of the programs’ last meeting in the postseason, the 2002 Elite Eight, a 90-82 win for top-seeded Maryland over second-seeded UConn as the Terps went on to capture the program’s first title.

On one side, Maryland placed four future pros on the court: Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox, Steve Blake and Juan Dixon, the 2002 ACC Player of the Year who was later named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. UConn had their share of stars, though less experienced, as well: freshmen Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor and sophomore Caron Butler, the Big East Player of the Year.

Along with the seven future NBA pros, the game featured a fast-paced back-and-forth that resembled today’s game and timely late-game 3s from Dixon and Blake.

“That game was probably the most talented game we were involved with. … The level of play is just one of the big things I remember, how good both teams were that day,” former Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “That should have been an NCAA championship game. That should have been for the championship.”

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The opening seconds of the game seemingly set the tone for the entire evening, as Dixon grabbed the tipoff, took one dribble and lobbed an alley-oop to Baxter, who slammed home the dunk. Dixon and Baxter recorded 27 and 29 points, respectively, as Baxter was named the East region’s Most Outstanding Player for the second consecutive season.

“It was a tremendous game, the flow of the game, the energy, the coaches going at it,” Patsos said.

In a first half where rarely either side was able to pull away by more than two scores, a 30-footer by Tahj Holden as time expired gave Maryland a 44-37 lead at halftime.

But in the second half, Butler, who was limited by foul trouble in the first half, showed why he was named his conference’s top player. Butler, in the final game of his college career, scored 26 of his 32 points in the second as he rallied the Huskies back from their halftime deficit.

“I spent the whole halftime going after him,” said Calhoun, who now coaches at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Williams even threw a zone defense at the future 14-year pro to keep him out of the paint but it was futile. From the 14-minute mark until the final 36 seconds, neither team led by more than three points as both sides traded blows.

“Once he got hot, he got into a zone and you couldn’t really shut him down,” Williams said. “And that happens in some games. So you’ve got to match that intensity. We had Lonny Baxter having a great game. And, of course, when you have Juan Dixon and Steve Blake as a backcourt, you’re never out of the game. So, those two guys made big shots down the stretch and really got us the lead and eventually won the game.”

Dixon, a Baltimore native and Calvert Hall graduate, delivered the first set of heroics, hitting a 3-pointer over Taliek Brown — who now works as a UConn assistant coach — to tie the game at 77 with under four minutes left.

Then it was Blake, who struggled throughout the game with foul trouble and had yet to make a field goal leading up to the moment. In a timeout before the sequence, Williams had drawn up a play for Dixon but Blake, anticipating UConn would double team his teammate, called for the ball to be placed in his hands.

Williams obliged and deferred to the junior guard.

So, Wilcox received the inbounds pass with 34 seconds and fed it to Blake near midcourt. A scrum of screens freed up Blake, who started to drive but picked up his dribble just behind the 3-point line. A shot fake sent Tony Robertson into the air and Blake raised up for the shot, sinking a 3-pointer that served as the dagger, putting Maryland up 86-80 with 25 seconds left.

“That’s typical Steve Blake. … Steve just kind of seized the moment,” Williams said.

Said Calhoun: “Those games, generally speaking, come down to who makes the plays at the end. And I thought that we had all the components to be really, really good. And they had all the components to be really good. … That day, all they had to be was a little better than us and they were a little better than us. And that’s what caused them to go on having a terrific ending.”

Patsos estimates there was a 60-40 split between the 29,252 fans in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University — still a member of the Big East at the time — that night. The majority of spectators sided with UConn, whether they were Huskies fans or local Big East supporters who made the trip to the game.

But as the final buzzer rang, it was Maryland’s fight song filling the air and Byron Mouton raising four fingers, signaling the Terps’ return to the Final Four after the previous year’s devastating loss to ACC rival Duke.

“If you screwed up for two minutes, you were dead. You were going to lose that game,” Williams said. “And that was the same for both teams and you knew that. That was the pressure of that game, where you had a two-minute period where you didn’t score or a two-minute period where you did not run your offense very well. Because both teams could win the game during that two-minute period. So, there was a lot of pressure in that game. And it was just a sense of relief when the game is over but also the joy of going to the Final Four again was special.”

NCAA tournament first round

NO. 10 SEED MARYLAND VS. NO. 7 SEED UCONN

Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.

Saturday, 7:10 p.m.

TV: CBS (Chs. 13, 9) Radio: 105.7 FM

Line: UConn by 3

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