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8 Upper

That Championship Season

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/3/2002

Now we know how far a basketball team can go without its A game: all the way to the end. This is not what we were expecting, those of us who waited through years of erratic brilliance from the Maryland Terrapins. We imagined exactly how it would be: Some night, when the stakes were highest, everything would go right. The Terps would drill their favorite shots, play smothering defense, sprint free on the break. They would be bigger, deadlier, and cleverer than anyone else, and they would finally show it for 40 minutes--till Duke or Kentucky or North Carolina State (depending on just what year we were doing the dreaming) got run clear out of the gym.

These Terps did play a game or two like that. Against Duke on Feb. 17, and again against Virginia to close out Cole Field House on March 3, they achieved that mastery, the purest expression of talent and will. They were unstoppable, every player, all the way down the line. They rolled up 87 points on the then-No. 1 Blue Devils and 112 on the Cavaliers--and they could have dropped in a dozen more that night if they'd deigned.

But then came the tournament. And back came the old scoreless droughts and the too-cute passes, the grappling and scuffling. While Duke was strafing Winthrop, the Terps were breaking a sweat to keep bottom-seeded Siena at bay. Wisconsin--Wisconsin!--gave them fits for 15 minutes. Kentucky hung close almost till the end; Connecticut actually pulled ahead down the stretch. Game after game, the Terps were surviving the opposition, not transcending it.

The only comfort was that the season was still alive. Steve Blake was held to three points and four assists by Wisconsin, then shot 2-for-9 against Kentucky. Byron Mouton stopped scoring almost completely. Yet the Terps were winning, even with key players on the skids. Against Kansas, surely, they'd all come around; instead, key players kept skidding. Lonny Baxter scored four points before fouling out. Blake turned the ball over five times. Marksman Drew Nicholas shot 2-for-9.

And they beat the Jayhawks 97-88. It was torture to watch--the Terps fell behind 13-2, stormed back till they led 83-63, and then watched Kansas carve 15 points off that lead in a five-minute span. But they won.

They won. Sometimes, when you watch a team too closely, you can miss the obvious. While fans across the state paced frantically, swore, or pounded on the carpet, the Terps calmly put away a team that had been swapping the No. 1 spot with Duke all year long--a team that a big swath of the experts had picked to beat the Terps when the brackets were drawn up; a team, moreover, that had boasted it was ready to handle Maryland.

Forget the drama. Here's what happened against Kansas: With the Jayhawks up 25-23 in the first half, Juan Dixon drilled a three-pointer, and Kansas never led again. The ballooning and deflating of the 20-point lead--that was a diversion. It meant nothing. The real margin of the game was a five- to 10-point cushion, the lead that Maryland grabbed before halftime. And that was never threatened. Every time Kansas got within two possessions of tying the score, the Terps tugged the game back out of reach.

There were thrilling plays and tense moments, sure--especially as the end game, played on a wet floor, devolved into a cross between a Greco-Roman wrestling match and a free-throw contest. But the game wasn't in doubt. Maryland would not lose.

The championship game was more of the same, only uglier. Indiana lost the national title before the ball even went up, when they started talking about the movie Hoosiers. Admirable as coach Mike Davis was this year, there was something pathetic about his team's embrace of the underdog myth, these players from a five-time championship program pretending to be a bunch of obscure, hard-luck country boys. Dane Fife, their bullying defensive guard, went so far as to say he wished he had actually been born in Indiana instead of Michigan--the better to partake in the fantasy of less-skilled players beating more-skilled ones through hard work and heart.

And so, the real Hoosiers, a team with the skill and depth to have beaten Duke earlier in the tournament, showed up with a cowardly game plan borrowed from the Hoosiers of fiction. They would slow the action, milk the clock, lean on and grab and shove the Maryland players to keep the score low and the game close. Then, if they hit their three-pointers, maybe they could steal it in the end.

In a way, it worked. Maryland didn't play its best game against the Hoosiers. Instead, the Terps played Indiana's best game. Suffocating defense? There was Lonny Baxter in the post, nimble on his feet, a one-man double-team against Indiana's willowy big men. Hustle? Byron Mouton diving into the crowd, tipping loose ball after loose ball to his teammates. And Juan Dixon put on the relentless, efficient shooting performance Indiana dreamed of: 6-for-9, 4-for-4 on free throws, for a game-high 18 points. In context, it was identical to his 33-point spree against Kansas--a standard the other team couldn't match. Dixon doesn't need a movie to show who he is. All he needs is a basketball.

And so, Gary Williams finally cut down the nets. After decades of almosts and maybes, the Terps are No. 1 in the country, beyond dispute or debate. After years dreaming of a team that could beat anyone, Williams did something different. He got a team that could beat everyone.

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