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After an Arduous Climb, Maryland Reaches Its Peak

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — They did all the important things correctly, from the moment Terence Morris hit that beautiful three-pointer to start the game, until Gary Williams cut the last strand of the net and whipped it around like it was a lasso. Indeed, he and his team had corralled a trip to the Final Four.

For the first time in the University of Maryland’s long and rather dramatic basketball history, the Terrapins played fabulously on the next-to-last weekend of March. With Lonny Baxter once again leading the way, Maryland played like a dream, each and every guy. They played like you draw it up, the way you fantasize about playing when a championship is within your grasp.

Maryland is going to the Final Four, to a new frontier, a place it has never been before. And to get there, the Terps didn’t go back-door through some lower-seeded team out of gas after a string of upsets. They went through probably the best and most balanced team in the tournament, top-seeded Stanford, a team that had lost only two games. Maryland more or less dared the Cardinal to win Saturday. Stanford couldn’t come much closer to playing at home, a California school playing before a crowd of its California alums and well-wishers. And Maryland just buried them, inside and out, big and small, starters and reserves.

With 19 seconds left, Gary Williams and his players started to hug one another while Drew Nicholas dribbled out the clock, and the celebration of the biggest victory in school history followed, pedal to the metal.

The marquee might not be wide enough to include all the stars deserving of special credits. You have to start with West Region MVP Baxter, then move to Juan Dixon, then Danny Miller and Byron Mouton for their smothering defense, to Steve Blake and then last, but certainly not least, to Morris and Williams. ”That’s a great thing,” Williams said on the court moments after the victory, “to play the best you can in the game that means the most.”

There have been some crazy up-from-the-grave stories in Final Four history. North Carolina State’s run to a national championship in 1983 has to rank way up there. And it would be fairly amazing if No. 11 seed Temple beats defending champion and top-seeded Michigan State. But Maryland’s tale is fairly improbable, too. On life support after the Valentine’s Day Massacre to Florida State and their coach under siege locally, Maryland resurrected its season and has gloriously hit its stride at the best time imaginable.

For three games in this tournament, against George Mason, Georgia State and Georgetown, Maryland played well enough to win emotional contests that had terrific subplots. But Saturday, with the story line reduced strictly to basketball, the Terps ran, shot and rebounded freely, as if they knew in their hearts they had Stanford’s number. Amazingly, the victory over Stanford was their easiest and most convincing one of the tournament.

Anybody who followed Maryland basketball is going to have a favorite story line from this game. Baxter’s 24 points and 11-for-18 shooting were amazing, considering he’s 6-foot-7 1 / 2 and had to power the ball over or through 6-foot-10 Jarron Collins and 7-footer Jason Collins. It was like having a Wes Unseld flashback. (The Collins twins, by the way, totaled 21 points.) Of his ability to dominate five taller players the last two games, Baxter said: “I’ve played center all my life, against 6-10, 6-11 guys. If my shot gets blocked, it gets blocked. The thing is to get it up there quick.”

If not Baxter, then how about the combination of Mouton and Miller? Get this: Miller scored two points, Mouton none. But they held Casey Jacobsen, an all-American who can lay 30 on you, to 4-for-11 shooting and a total of 14 points. To say Williams was worried about Jacobsen is a gross understatement. There were game films of Jacobsen playing so brilliantly this season, Williams didn’t even show them to his team before the game.

If that doesn’t do it for you, there was Morris. He hit 5 of 8 shots and led all players with 10 rebounds. Eight shots isn’t exactly gunning, but he did look for his shot several times which made Stanford play honest defense on him.

“I told Terence,” Williams said, “ ‘The only time you’re in trouble with me tonight is if you don’t shoot.’ When he made that first shot, we all relaxed.”

If not Morris, then there was the bench. It’s too bad the NBA’s Sacramento Kings took the nickname “Bench Mob” because it fits Maryland’s reserves perfectly. Stanford got eight points and five rebounds from its bench players; Maryland got 22 points and nine rebounds. The best big man on the court after Baxter was Maryland’s Tahj Holden.

There’s also Blake, and his success in pushing the ball up speedily against a Stanford team that isn’t the fastest group in the world. “Every rebound we got, I wanted to push it up the court, push it every time, try to wear ‘em down,” Blake said.

And there’s always Dixon. I wrote the day before the game that Jacobsen would be the best player on the court. Wrong. Dixon was better by a mile Saturday. He hit 7 of 10 shots, including a couple of nasty face-up three-pointers when it mattered, and he picked off three steals. The kid played 35 minutes of great defense and committed one foul. He’s an inspirational player. No wonder Mike Krzyzewski says he’d like to coach Dixon. He’d probably like to coach him in the national semifinal when these two meet for the fourth time this season.

“I haven’t been in too many situations,” Williams said, “where I’ve had that many good players. I looked out there at times in the second half, and we had four guys from the bench playing, and it doesn’t bother us.”

Bother them? It actually helps them. Maryland’s players had strong legs in the second half and Stanford’s did not. That helps explain how the Terps shot 61 percent after intermission and Stanford shot 43.3.

The Terps are playing with house money now. Williams, his players, all of College Park let out a huge sigh of relief when Morris hit that beautiful arching three-pointer out of the gates. When they play so freely, so easy, they can beat anybody, to which Stanford can attest.

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