A team that began the season ranked fifth nationally and with expectations to match hit several bumps along the way. There were times when it seemed all might be lost, especially when the Terrapins lost five of six games in late January and early February.
Somewhere along the way, though, Maryland (25-10) transformed itself into a confident team, one capable of winning even when things were not going well, like in their first three games of the NCAA tournament. Today, though, the Terrapins played one of their best games of the season, and the result was the biggest victory in program history.
“We needed it today,” said Maryland Coach Gary Williams, whose team will play Duke, the winner of the East Region final over Southern California, 79-69, in a national semifinal Saturday in Minneapolis. “That’s a great thing, to play the best you can in the game that means the most.”
As the final seconds ticked away, a jubilant celebration started along the Maryland bench. Assistant coach Billy Hahn leaped into the arms of assistant coach Dave Dickerson, clearly enjoying the most memorable moments of their careers. Dixon, still on the floor, went around the court, high-fiving Drew Nicholas, who was dribbling the ball as time ran out, then hugging Danny Miller.
Less than a minute later, Maryland officials were scurrying around the court to hand out regional championship T-shirts and hats to players. Ladders were set up to cut down the nets — the first time the Terrapins had done that since winning the 1984 ACC tournament — though Maryland’s players were in no hurry to make it there.
Few Terrapins fans left, standing in their seats to witness the event. After snipping the final strand of the net, Williams stood atop the ladder, turned toward the sections of Maryland fans and whirled the net like a lasso.
“This is the greatest feeling in the world,” Baxter said amid the chaos. “I’ve seen it on TV a lot, and now to be here doing it. . . . “
The postgame festivities were as intense as the game. The lead seesawed in the opening 15 minutes; then Maryland took control with a 13-2 run led by Baxter and Terence Morris, who broke out of a slump with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Later, backup forward Tahj Holden took a pass from Nicholas and made a three-pointer from the left wing, giving the Terrapins a 42-32 halftime lead.
Stanford (31-3) tried to rally on several occasions, but Maryland counterpunched each time. After the Cardinal moved within 42-39, Baxter made a three-point play, then Steve Blake and Dixon made consecutive three-pointers to make it 51-39.
A minute later, after another three-pointer by Holden and an 18-footer by Dixon from the right wing, it was 56-41. Maryland’s fans, many seated in the sections behind the team bench and wearing red, were on their feet in celebration.
Stanford, whose only previous losses were by six points to UCLA and one point to Arizona, made several comeback attempts. But the Cardinal was unable to get closer than nine points.
“We stayed tough,” Williams said. “I never saw us shake at all.”
Baxter and Dixon were the steadying factors. Baxter had 24 points and six rebounds, following up his 26-point, 14-rebound effort in the regional semifinal victory over Georgetown. He was named the most outstanding player of the regional.
Dixon, who has been Maryland’s best player down the stretch and in the postseason, had 17 points and made 7 of 10 shots. As a team, the Terrapins had one of their best shooting games of the season, making 58.2 percent from the field and 9 of 13 three-point attempts in scoring the most points Stanford has allowed this season. Although starters Morris, Blake and Baxter had four fouls each, Maryland got contributions from reserves such as Holden (14 points) and Nicholas (six points, three assists).
Defensively, Maryland put forwards Miller and Byron Mouton on the Cardinal’s standout shooting guard, Casey Jacobsen. Jacobsen made just 4 of 11 shots and had 14 points. Stanford shot just 41.1 percent for the game.
“It’s no secret that every team we play tries to pressure the wings and make us go inside,” Jacobsen said. “But I think it was Maryland’s offense that killed us. We couldn’t stop them.”