The long journey finally ended for Maryland’s men’s basketball program on April 1, 2002.
A school that played third fiddle in its own conference to North Carolina and Duke for the better part of 50 years finally won its first NCAA title. It wasn’t the prettiest game, a sloppy 64-52 Terrapins win over Indiana at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
They briefly fell behind for the first time with 9:52 to go. But Gary Williams’ team wasn’t going to be denied. Not this time.
Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox, Byron Mouton, Tahj Holden, Drew Nicholas and crew – not a McDonald’s All-American among them – pulled away in the final minutes and Dixon appropriately took the final inbounds pass as the buzzer sounded. One year after blowing a 22-point first-half lead to Duke in a Final Four game, Maryland was crowned champion for the first time.
“And the kids have done it!” Terrapins play-by-play voice Johnny Holliday famously exclaimed after the final buzzer sounded.
Williams led his alma mater to the championship. It was a day he didn’t believe would happen when the program was hit with three years probation for recruiting and other rules violations during the era of his predecessor Bob Wade. Maryland was banned from the NCAA Tournament for two years. The Terrapins were banned from television completely for the 1990-91 season. Williams wasn’t sure he’d be able to rebuild from the rubble.
But star guard Walt Williams decided to stay with the program. He could have left to play anywhere in the country. Instead, he spent his final two college seasons knowing he wouldn’t play in the tournament. That kept the Terrapins competitive during the sanctions period.
Gary Williams and his staff recruited well. A class led by local players Johnny Rhodes, Excree Hipp and Duane Simpkins got things started in 1992. The addition of Joe Smith and Keith Booth the next year led to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. Suddenly, a program that had been left for dead was in the national conversation again.
But that Final Four berth was elusive. Hall of Fame coach Lefty Driesell had never made it there despite vowing to build “the UCLA of the East” when he arrived at College Park in 1969. Driesell built a powerhouse. But it was never quite good enough. The 1971-72 Terrapins went 27-5, tied for second in the ACC. But only one team went to the NCAA Tournament each year in those days. And Maryland lost one of the greatest games in college basketball history to North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament championship game. They might have been the third-best team in the nation, but were relegated to the NIT, which they won.
The legacy of those years hung around Maryland, which went to the Elite Eight in 1973 and 1975 and was a Sweet 16 team in 1980, 1984 and 1985. Driesell had top recruiting classes and consistent winning seasons. But when Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose just days after the 1986 NBA Draft, the Maryland program fell apart. Driesell was forced out that October. Wade lasted just three years.
Williams had to deal with all of that. Duke and North Carolina continued to compete for championships. But Williams stuck with it. After consecutive first round NCAA losses in 1996 and 1997, he was back in the Sweet 16 in 1998 and then 1999, when Maryland won a school-record 28 games with junior guard Steve Francis. Dixon was already there. He was a redshirt freshman in 1997-98. He was on the floor during a blowout loss to St. John’s in 1999 and again against UCLA in 2000 and once more when the Terrapins lost to Duke in that devastating semifinal game in 2001. It seemed like it would never happen for the program.
But Maryland came right back the next season with a 15-1 record in the ACC and a No. 1 seed in the East Region. After winning a pair of games in Washington against Siena and Wisconsin in the first two rounds and outlasting Kentucky and Connecticut at regionals, the Terrapins made it back to the Final Four. They beat Kansas in what some saw as the true national championship game, falling behind 13-2 before calming down en route to a 97-88 win, and then were in control for much of the final against the Hoosiers.