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8 Upper

Foul Ball

By Tom Scocca | Posted 3/27/2002

It seems small-minded, after a weekend of heart-stopping basketball action, to care about free throws. Maryland's victory over Connecticut in the NCAA's East Regional final was won on bold strokes, clutch shots that will live in college-hoops history. Pick it up inside of four minutes to go, with the Terps trailing the Huskies 77-74--and with UConn, having rallied from seven points down, starting to think it can put the game away. Juan Dixon takes the ball on the outside, to the left of the key and well beyond the three-point arc. He makes a quick fake, his defender flinches, and Dixon straightens up and nails a three-pointer.

It's a fearless shot. Ruthless. The Huskies' hard-earned lead is gone--gone, it will turn out, for good. Dixon has served notice: Maryland is not going to fade out, not with a return trip to the Final Four in reach. The Terps are going to keep coming, ferociously, unless the Huskies can somehow make them stop.

That's the big play. But 44 seconds later, with the game still tied at 77, comes this: Dixon, moving without the ball, gets fouled. He steps to the line and hits a free throw. And that's how the Terps take the lead. Then he hits another, and the Terps lead by two.

A minute and a half later, with Maryland up 83-80, the next big shot comes. With the shot clock running down and the Terps' offense in disarray, Steve Blake--scoreless to that point--throws up a leaning three-pointer from the right wing. And hits. Hits! It's 86-80, with only 25 seconds left. If the Huskies even hope to tie the game, they'll need two huge shots of their own.

But again, there's more. Connecticut rushes its next shot, and Blake hurls himself in among three taller Huskies to snatch the rebound. As he wraps up the ball, he gets fouled. The players march back to Maryland's end of the court. Blake's first free throw rolls around and in. 87-80. Now UConn needs to score three times, and there are only 16 seconds left. The second shot is good. 88-80. The Terps are back in the Final Four.

I haven't been thinking about free throws while I watch Maryland this year. I've been thinking, simply, that I want to see these Terps keep playing. The curse of college hoops is that it's deciduous; the game sheds its players just as they round into maturity and greatness--or sooner, if they've got the raw physical gifts to jump to the pros. To see Dixon and Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton, playing at the height of their powers, is to know that soon they'll be gone from the team.

For the last month or so, the games have brought a familiar feeling. It's the feeling everyone gets when the Terps are winning big, the game is almost over, and Earl Badu peels off his warmups. These are the only minutes the senior practice guard gets on the floor, the dwindling end of garbage time. The fans scream for him to get the ball, scream for him to shoot, with a mixture of joy and despair: Badu has the chance to score some points; Badu may never get the chance again.

As it happens, Badu has taken four shots this year, and tallied two buckets, including the next-to-the-last Maryland basket in Cole Field House. But being Earl Badu, he has also laid the ball off for nine assists--with the crowd, begging him to shoot, roaring in his ears. Glory is not to be cheaply won.

And so these Terps do the hard things, and do them well. They greeted UConn off the tip with a Dixon-to-Baxter alley-oop, for kicks. But the rest of Baxter's evening was plain labor, pounding in among the Connecticut big men for layups, finger rolls--and free throws. He shot 7-for-12 from the floor and 15-for-18 from the line, a performance Huskies coach Jim Calhoun was moved to praise as "efficient."

By Maryland standards, though, that 15-for-18 on foul shots was no great feat of efficiency: The other Terps shot a combined 16-for-17. In all, six of their last nine points came at the stripe; two days before, against Kentucky, 10 of their last 12 came on free throws. For the weekend, the team shot 52-for-59, or 88 percent.

Free-throw shooting, as a skill, is both over- and underpraised. It is seen as a test of nerve and character, but with something cheap about it too. It's the thing slow-footed players do to get over against more talented foes, letting the refs help them win.

But free throws are also the last line of protection for excellence. When a player is too good, the defense will bludgeon him rather than letting him see the basket. Scoring from the line is the way to make sure you get what you deserve. It keeps the other team from getting away with anything. Baxter only scored 14 points from the floor with UConn's big men thumping him but more than doubled that total with his free throws.

And it's the free throws that have kept Maryland's hopes for a national title alive. Their last two games, getting them from the round of 16 to the Final Four, were wrenching battles, in doubt right to the end. Yet the Terps came out with comfortable-looking scores: 78-68 over Kentucky and 90-82 over Connecticut.

Were those figures deceptive? Maryland closed out both games with a defensive clampdown. The other teams were one or two baskets away from catching up but couldn't score. So they fouled, and the Terps converted, and the foes fell further behind. The Terps pushed them to a standstill, so they had to stop the clock. And with the clock stopped, the Terps could put the game away.

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