ATLANTA, April 1 — In a game that ensured the University of Maryland’s basketball season would be long remembered, the Terrapins faced a relentless Indiana Hoosiers team. They struggled at times but withstood the pressure, winning their first NCAA championship tonight.
The shaky 64-52 victory set off a delirious celebration that resembled mini red-and-white fireworks in the Georgia Dome seats. It also ended Maryland’s drought of 79 seasons without a basketball title and amply rewarded a single-minded and unflappable group of players who set their sights on a championship last summer.
“I feel like I’m dreaming right now because I’m part of a national championship team,” said senior Juan Dixon, named the Final Four’s most valuable player. “It’s a great feeling man. I’m speechless.”
Maryland trailed 44-42 on a layup by Indiana’s Jared Jeffries with 9 minutes 53 seconds to play, but a key three-point shot by Dixon gave the Terrapins the lead and their defense held Indiana without a basket for more than four minutes late in the game.
When the final seconds ticked off, ending yet another nerve-jangling night for Maryland supporters, the Terrapins’ usually unemotional players erupted, leaping and hugging and tumbling to the court in a joyous release. Within minutes, Maryland officials brought out national championship caps and jerseys, making the once unthinkable seem real.
At the center of the dizzying celebration was Coach Gary Williams, who enjoyed his first national title in 24 years of coaching but did not erupt with the joy one might expect. He was embraced from behind by Chris Wilcox, then calmly walked to Indiana Coach Mike Davis to shake hands. Still, tonight’s victory signaled a triumphant conclusion to the enormous rebuilding venture he undertook in 1989 when he returned to Maryland, his alma mater, just as the program was veering from tragedy to disarray.
“I’m very happy,” Williams said. “It was a thrill, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m really tired. . . . I’m just so happy for the players, to see what they did. . . . Those guys just did it.”
Considered an example of everything wrong with college basketball in the late 1980s, Maryland has restored its reputation underWilliams, and tonight it rose to the very top of its sport in front of a national television audience and more than 53,000 fans that turned the arena into a sea of red -- half Indiana red, half Maryland red -- all raising a considerable ruckus from more than an hour before tip-off until the conclusion. After the game, Terrapins fans serenadedWilliams with chants of “Gary, Gary,” and Dixon, who scored 18 points, with chants of “MVP.”
Three months after the Maryland football team advanced to a major bowl game for the first time in more than a decade but lost to powerhouse Florida, 56-23, the basketball team finished the job -- albeit with some occasionally tense moments. The Terrapins never trailed in the first half, but they allowed Indiana to take a two-point lead midway through the second.
But when Indiana threatened, there was Dixon, the team’s leader all season, delivering timely scoring -- again and again -- and clutch steals. His three-pointer to regain the lead just seconds after Indiana took it also stole the momentum. Maryland never trailed again.
“It just tells you he has no fear,” Davis said. “Your best player; if you are going to win a championship, your best player has to step up and make plays. And he did that.”
There also was Baxter, muscling around Indiana’s smaller front-court players, producing 15 key points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. “He’s so physical,” Davis said. “He was just bulling guys out of the way.”
There was Wilcox, contributing 10 points and strong inside play. And Steve Blake, as usual hitting the occasional key basket despite not playing his best, while reserves Tahj Holden, Drew Nicholas and Ryan Randle helped hold off Indiana when it threatened.
Though the final score may suggest otherwise, it wasn’t easy. It was a sloppy game for both teams. Indiana finished the game having converted only 34.5 percent of its shots and both teams committed 16 turnovers. Instead of the wide-open game Maryland usually plays, this one featured only one dunk.
Down by seven points early in the second half, Indiana tied the game for the first time, 40-40, with 11:41 remaining on a tip in by forward Jeff Newton. The Hoosiers had closed the gap methodically with their usual formula: Outside shooting, namely from Dane Fife and Kyle Hornsby. But then the Terrapins held Indiana to just eight points over the game’s last 9:42.
“It’s very rewarding for me as a coach to see a team play defense like that for a full 40 minutes,” Williams said.
As a result, the Maryland supporters who have enjoyed the recent increase in the university’s academic profile can now boast about rooting for one of basketball’s elite programs. Maryland, previously considered one of the top schools never to have won basketball’s ultimate prize, joins the ranks of those who have.
And Maryland, which claimed its 17th national title overall, also becomes one of only five schools who have won national championships in both football and basketball. The football championship came in 1953.
The fifth-seeded Hoosiers had lost 11 games before tonight but advanced in the tournament with an array of improbable performances. Led by Davis, who is in his second year, Indiana had hoped to become one of the lowest-seeded teams to win the championship, joining a historic group that includes sixth-seeded Kansas in 1988, eighth-seeded Villanova in 1985 and sixth-seeded North Carolina State in 1983.
True to form, what Indiana lacked in execution, shooting success and inside presence, the Hoosiers frequently made up for -- five times in the first half and five in the second -- with three-point shots that can soak the life out of an opponent. The Terrapins, by comparison, made only two three-pointers, both by Dixon. But at the conclusion of an emotionally taxing season for Maryland’s players, who had expectations forced upon them since last season’s Final Four appearance, they mustered one last victory.
When the buzzer finally sounded, the university’s darkest days seemed more than 16 years removed. In 1986, the program reached its most somber depths, depths in which it floundered through the early 1990s. Maryland star Len Bias was found dead in his dormitory room from a cocaine overdose just days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. His death resulted in the forced resignations of coach Lefty Driesell -- who had led the program to greatness, if not excellence, in the 1970s and early ‘80s -- and yielded a sweeping investigation of the program in the ensuing years.
As a result, only a year after Williams arrived at Maryland in 1989, returning to the university for which he played in the mid-1960s, the program was hit with a three-year probation and a two-year ban from the NCAA tournament for various recruiting violations under Driesell’s successor, Bob Wade.
That’s “a time I hate to even think about,” Williams said, “because there was so much mistrust, so much doubt about the place of basketball at the university. We had to work all of those things out before we could even think about having a good basketball team.”
It wasn’t until Williams lured Joe Smith, who later became the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, to the program in 1993 that it began a slow revival, which included two appearances in the tournament’s round of 16 in the mid-1990s, its first trip to the Final Four last year, and tonight’s coronation.