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8 Upper

The Final Frontier

By Tom Scocca | Posted 3/28/2001

BWI Airport, March 25--A little after 6 a.m., the heroes begin to emerge from the chartered plane, lanky silhouettes against the apricot-colored dawn. The fans are more than a hundred yards off, behind chain-link fence, screened by ground-crew vehicles and muffled by the noise of the engines. There are maybe 20 of them, clapping and cheering in the cold air.

The fans arrived individually, in the dark, heading first into the deserted, gleaming space of Terminal E, only to be told that the Terrapins would be coming in the back somewhere--thataway and take a right at the Crown station. Gradually, they became an ad hoc caravan, bumbling up Elm Avenue and down Aviation Boulevard, following each other with guesswork and blind faith, wending around the air-freight loading docks into dead end after dead end, till at last they are here, in sight of the plane. There are small children, clutching basketballs and rolled-up newspapers; there are middle-aged men in red sweat suits with looks of goofy joy on their faces. They whoop and holler across the distance. The tall shadows descending the gangway stairs pause, then turn and wave.

It's been 13 hours since Drew Nicholas hurled the ball toward the rafters of the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, sending decades of misery with it. The fans goggle into the triumphant sunrise, like cave fish suddenly dumped into a Montana trout stream: There, getting off that plane, are the champions of the NCAA tournament West Region.

When I was 15, I used to shoot free throws in my basement before Maryland men's basketball games. Obsessively, I would fire a palm-sized ball into a 3-foot storage canister, trying to wear a lucky groove in the air for Derrick Lewis or Keith Gatlin. If I knocked down 8 of 10, 16 of 20, 24 of 30, then maybe this time the Terps would keep their composure, get the bounces, make it through. Duane Ferrell wouldn't steal the inbound pass.

It never worked. Nothing ever worked, neither the invisible forces conjured by fans nor the considerable physical forces out on the hardwood. Not Len Bias, not Joe Smith, not Steve Francis. The Terps could run with the best teams in the nation; in January and February, they could sometimes even beat them. But in March, when it counted for real, they could never string it all together--some other team was always quicker, or smarter, or bolder, or just more fortunate.

"Maryland, year in and year out, is the worst good team in sports," wrote Michael Gee of the Boston Herald two weeks ago. Note, please, that he did not say "in college basketball." He said in sports. This from a man who watches the Boston Red Sox for a living. And it was true.

But it isn't anymore. On March 24, the Terrapins, 24-10 and seeded third in the West, overwhelmed the top-seeded, 31-2 Stanford Cardinal, 87-73, in the game Maryland fans had been dreaming of all their lives. The UCLA of the East looked like UCLA; the Harvard of the West looked like Harvard. The Terps were faster than the Cardinal, were stronger, had more endurance, shot better.

The debate over Gary Williams' past accomplishments is over. The coach lost the argument by winning--as he snipped down the net in Anaheim, the notion of being content with the Sweet 16, as he has asked Maryland fans to be for years, seemed hopelessly silly. There's no use denying that the Final Four is the measure of success once you've made it there.

This does not mean that Williams' critics were mistaken. But a coach, like a team, is a work in progress. Before 1991, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski was best known for losing the big games. Before 1997, Arizona's Lute Olsen was famous for not being able to win with talented teams. The Gary Williams who beat Stanford is not the same coach who lost to Santa Clara in March 1996, or even to Florida State this past Valentine's Day.

The clearest difference is tactical. After a decade of stubbornly and exclusively playing man-to-man pressure defense, Williams has finally discovered the zone. This is as basic and significant as a power puncher learning to jab or a fastball pitcher mixing in a change-up. It was the Terps' switch to a zone that sealed their third-round win over Georgetown, preventing the Hoyas from getting the ball anywhere near the basket. And with the strategic flexibility has come a psychological change. When the Terps were a blitz-and-press team, if the press cracked the players cracked too. The current Terps are adaptable; if one thing isn't working, they try something else.

An hour after they get off the red-eye, the Terps arrive at Cole Field House. The caravan has followed the team bus there, and another hundred fans, maybe more, have joined them. It's broad daylight, still freezing. The players lug their bags inside, then reappear.

Lonny Baxter wades through the crowd, signing autographs. The Terps' center appears to be a good 3 inches shorter than his 6-foot-8 program height, no taller than the tallest kid you went to high school with. The book says he struggles against bigger and stronger foes: In February, Georgia Tech's Alvin Jones and North Carolina's Brendan Haywood were smothering him; 11 days ago, George Mason's George Evans was shoving him around. But in Anaheim, he played like a wrecking ball in the pivot, bullying Georgetown's and Stanford's huge front lines. Seven-footers crashed to the floor in his wake. It looks, this sunny, happy morning, as if it's time to write a new book.

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