ATLANTA, April 1, 2002 — As the final seconds ticked down tonight, each one bringing Maryland closer to its first national championship, Coach Gary Williams hugged forward Chris Wilcox, then assistant coach Dave Dickerson. Guard Juan Dixon and center Lonny Baxter, the Terrapins’ two stars, embraced and toppled to the floor.
In college basketball’s biggest game, the Terrapins were far from perfect but more than good enough to hold off the Indiana Hoosiers, 64-52, before 53,406 at the Georgia Dome. As he had all season, Dixon made the toughest shots when Maryland needed them most, first a three-pointer from the left corner seconds after Maryland had fallen behind for the only time, then a hanging jumper one minute later.
“It’s a great feeling, except that I haven’t felt anything because I’m numb,” Williams said an hour after the game.
Asked to describe his emotions, Dixon said: “I can’t. I feel like I’m dreaming because I’m part of a national championship team. That’s all I can say.”
There were a few scary moments when Maryland’s stunning season seemed like it was going to come to a most hollow end. Dixon, though, one of the greatest players in school history, made certain there would be no disappointment at game’s end. He scored a game-high 18 points and made sure a splendid season would end memorably.
The Terrapins (32-4) already had set the school record for victories and finished first in the ACC for the first time in 22 years. Those accomplishments, though, hardly measure up to what Maryland achieved tonight — but it did not come easily. Though Baxter and point guard Steve Blake were struggling, the Terrapins led by 12 points in the first half and by 35-27 early in the second half.
Indiana stormed back with its three-point shooting, tied the score at 40 on a tip-in by forward Jeff Newton and took its first and only lead, 44-42, on a basket by its star, forward Jared Jeffries, with 9 minutes 52 seconds left.
“We were upset we let it get to that point,” Blake said. “But we knew we could make plays. We’ve stepped up big every time this year. And we did it again.”
This time, Maryland needed just 10 seconds to respond. Blake drove toward the basket and passed back to Dixon for the three-pointer that put the Terrapins back in front to stay.
“The whole game I was telling guys we were going to win,” Dixon said. “I have a lot of confidence in my teammates that we could go out and play well. A lot of guys got tense, but I said, ‘Calm down, we’re going to win and make plays at the right time.’ And we did.”
Dixon fed Baxter, he was fouled and made a pair of free throws. Still, when Indiana guard Dane Fife made a jumper from the left side of the foul line, it was 47-46 with 8 1 / 2 minutes left.
But the Hoosiers, who were inconsistent offensively throughout, made only one more basket until less than one second remained. Maryland, which had been most sloppy, was able to take advantage.
Dixon, hounded all game by Fife, hung in the air an extra moment to get a shot off over the taller defender from the left side. Then forward Tahj Holden grabbed an offensive rebound and made a nice bounce pass to Baxter for a dunk. Then Holden made two free throws, and it was 53-46 with five minutes left.
“Indiana played great defense,” Williams said. “It took us 25 minutes to get into our offense. When we finally started playing it, we got it inside and that was the difference.”
Guard Kyle Hornsby made a three-pointer from the right wing to momentarily stop Maryland’s run. But Holden, who made several key plays in the final minutes, passed to guard Drew Nicholas for a layup, Baxter made 1 of 2 free throws and Dixon made a pair for a 58-49 lead with 2 minutes 43 seconds left.
When Blake made a pair of free throws with 2:13 left, for a 60-49 lead, one could see from the look on the faces of Maryland’s players that the victory was in hand. The players on the court were smiling, those on the bench were hugging.
Soon, team managers rushed onto the court to hand out commemorative T-shirts and hats. Stadium officials hurried to put a stage on the court and ladders under each basket for cutting down the nets. Then the players danced all over the court and accepted the championship trophy from NCAA President Cedric Dempsey.
“At one point, I was so happy, I couldn’t get the tears out of my eyes,” Nicholas said. “I don’t know if you guys have ever felt that, but I hope you do someday. There’s no way to describe it.”
While the Terrapins cut down the nets, the Hoosiers retreated to their locker room disappointed that their remarkable run came to an end one game too early.
After a somewhat rocky two seasons since legendary coach Bob Knight was fired, Indiana (25-12) had stunned most of the college basketball world by beating Duke and Oklahoma en route to tonight’s game. Throughout the tournament, the Hoosiers had shot the ball with incredible accuracy from all over, including three-point range.
They continued that marksmanship for much of tonight’s game, finishing 10 of 23 from three-point range, but the inability to score from inside the three-point arc was too much to overcome. Indiana finished 10 of 35 on two-point attempts.
“I was really proud of the players because the hung in there,”Williams said. “It was frustrating because we weren’t able to score like we thought we should. . . . While that was going on on our offensive end, we were playing great defense. That was very rewarding for me as a coach.”