Only three days into the season, there remain many unknowns surrounding the Maryland men's basketball team. One thing, however, is becoming clear: When the Terrapins need a big shot, Juan Dixon is ready to take it.
After Maryland rallied from an early 17-point deficit, sophomore guard Dixon provided reason for celebration, making three consecutive shots in the final three minutes to lead the Terrapins to a thrilling 78-70 victory over Tulane in the second round of the Preseason NIT before 14,500 at Cole Field House.
"I've been saying all along that Juan is our money player right now," Coach Gary Williams said. "He really comes to play. . . . It was great to see him step up in that situation."
Partly because of Dixon's career-high 25 points, partly because of a strong defensive effort in the second half and partly because of a gritty effort by injured freshman point guard Steve Blake, Maryland earned a Thanksgiving trip to New York's Madison Square Garden.
In Wednesday's semifinals there, the Terrapins (2-0) will play No. 14 Kentucky. The Wildcats beat No. 16 Utah, 56-48, last night. In the other semifinal, Notre Dame will play No. 9 Arizona, which defeated New Mexico State last night.
Wednesday's winners and losers will play Friday in the final and third-place game.
"We have to get better as a team," said Williams, who vowed not to overlook Monday's home game against Fairleigh Dickinson. "I was proud of the way we hung in when things weren't going well. . . . But I know our team and I don't think anyone in the locker room is happy with the way we played."
Indeed, there was plenty for the Terrapins to lament. They were outrebounded for the second straight game, 42-27. They allowed Tulane (1-1) several easy baskets and fell behind by 17 points in the game's first seven minutes, as the Green Wave scored on 12 of its first 15 possessions. And the Terrapins failed to take advantage of a glorious opportunity to seize control with seven minutes left.
What was a high-paced, frenetic game stalled midway through the second half when both teams went into zone defenses. In a six-minute stretch, the teams combined for just five points and the game was tied at 63 with 6 minutes 20 seconds left after a three-point play by Tulane's Dylan Osean. One minute earlier, Tulane players were called for a personal foul and a technical foul, but Maryland made just 2 of 4 free throws and turned over the ball on the ensuing possession.
It was 67-67 when Dixon, who also had a career-high five assists--all in the first half--made a nifty runner along the right baseline. After a steal by Terence Morris (20 points, 7 blocks, 5 rebounds), Blake--who did not practice Thursday because of a sprained left foot--made 1 of 2 free throws. Following a miss by Tulane, Blake (11 assists, 6 turnovers, 6 steals) fed Dixon for an open three-pointer from the right side and Maryland had a 73-67 lead.
And just for insurance, Blake, trying to dribble off some time on Maryland's next possession, found Dixon open again for another three-pointer and the Terrapins could finally breathe easily.
"I got the opportunity and I knocked down the big shots," said Dixon, whose previous career high was 20 points against San Francisco in Maryland's opener. "I'm happy I was able to do it and that we were able to get the win."
It was a wild first half in which Maryland fell behind by 17, rallied to take a six-point lead, then fall behind again, 47-44, at halftime. Both teams shot the ball well, with Tulane making 58.8 percent of its shots to 55.2 for Maryland.
When Williams entered the locker room after the game, he saw a series of glum faces, not the celebrating that normally accompanies a victory. Williams said he had to tell the players to enjoy the victory.
"I don't care how it looks, it can be the ugliest game in America," Williams said. "But it doesn't matter if you win."
CAPTION: Terrapins' Terence Morris turns the corner on Trello Galloway. Morris had 20 points and blocked seven shots by Tulane's forward-oriented offense.
CAPTION: It's all hands on deck as Tulane's Waitari Marsh, left, and Sterling Davis, right, contest Lonny Baxter for loose ball. Green Wave had 42-27 edge in rebounds.