Before they were honored at halftime of the Maryland men’s basketball team’s ultimate loss to Iowa Feb. 25, the 2001 Final Four and 2002 national championship Terps teams gathered at the Pavilion in the Xfinity Center and reminisced about the most successful two-year stretch in the history of the program.
The 15th anniversary celebration marked the first time the national title squad had mostly been under one roof since it visited the White House after it won the NCAA Tournament, according to power forward Chris Wilcox. In fact, it was the first time guard Steve Blake had been back to College Park, Md., for a regular-season game after spending the previous 13 years on an NBA squad.
“As soon as we all got in the same room, things haven’t changed,” said Blake, who played four years in College Park. “We’re all joking on each other and making each other laugh. It’s just as if we were with each other last week almost, except for the extra gray hairs and some wrinkles. … It’s so much fun to talk about some old times, see where everyone is in life, with marriages and kids and all that stuff. It’s pretty special to have this opportunity.”
The 2000-01 team had three seniors who weren’t on the title team the next year: Forward Laron Cephas, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 29, center Mike Mardesich and forward Terence Morris.
The Terps went 25-11 in that year, culminating in a loss to Duke in the Final Four despite leading by as many as 22 in the first half. Then-head coach Gary Williams said he’s never watched that game in full but “watched a couple calls, which verified some things in my mind.”
Maryland played four memorable games against the Blue Devils that year, though three of them were heartbreaking losses for the Terps. Maryland lost at home to Duke after leading by 10 with less than a minute remaining, which began a stretch in which the Terps lost four of five games, including a game at Cole Field House to Florida State, which went 9-21 that year.
Maryland returned the favor at Cameron Indoor Stadium, winning on senior night for Duke standouts Shane Battier and Nate James. But the Terps lost to the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament on a tip-in by James, though guard Juan Dixon nearly hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer after hauling in a long in-bounds pass by Morris. Three weeks later, Maryland lost to Duke once more.
Williams said the Terps’ players decided to take two weeks off after losing to Duke in the Final Four. The 2001-02 team was set to come back with four seniors, three of whom (Dixon, guard Byron Mouton and forward Lonny Baxter) would be starters, an experienced junior point guard in Blake, a future lottery pick in Wilcox, and a solid bench with junior forward Tahj Holden and junior guard Drew Nicholas.
“The first week we were back, they were in the weight room — Blake and all those guys. Then I knew we had a shot,” Williams said. “I knew we were good enough if we do everything right the next year. In fact, I said at Midnight Madness — got criticized by certain people for saying it — that we were going to win a national championship. You know, you throw it out there … I wish I was that good that I knew that.”
Maryland began the 2001-02 season at Madison Square Garden and lost to a Luke Walton-led Arizona squad. If the Terps were using the previous season’s defeat in the Final Four to motivate them, “it didn’t do a good enough job the first game,” quipped Holden, who’s now the head coach at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls, N.J. Maryland bounced back the next night with a win against Temple at the Garden and only lost three more games the rest of the way en route to a 32-4 record.
Wilcox said he knew his team had a chance to win the title halfway through the season. While Dixon was always in the gym working on his game, Blake eventually joined him late at night, as did Mouton and then the big men.
“It was just like a trickle effect,” said Wilcox, who had an 11-year career in the NBA.
“We had guys that would come in the gym and their girlfriends would be passing them the ball late [at] night, like 1 or 2 in the morning. And we were like, ‘Wow.’ And then next thing you know it started being like all the guys getting in the gym,” Wilcox said. “One night, I remember, it was maybe three or four guys in there. It was just a trip. Everybody wanted to get extra shots. Everybody wanted to do more. So then, after a while, [Williams] knew. He knew that he could trust in us, and we could make the big plays.”
Maryland went on a 13-game winning streak during the second half of the season that included an 87-73 win against Duke — complete with Blake’s now-famous steal from Duke guard Jay Williams — and closing out Cole Field House, which housed Terps hoops for 47 years, with a 112-92 victory against Virginia. The Terps lost in the ACC Tournament semifinals to N.C. State, but earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland started out with 15- and 30-point wins against Siena and Wisconsin at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and took down Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Maryland then played Connecticut in the Elite Eight, during which guard Caron Butler nearly carried the Huskies to the Final Four himself thanks to a 32-point performance on 9-of-13 shooting. But Dixon and Baxter combined for 56 points, while Dixon and Blake both hit huge 3-pointers late in the contest.
The Terps met Kansas in the national semifinal at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Baxter picked up two quick fouls, and the Jayhawks got off to a 13-2 lead in the first four minutes of the game. But Maryland recovered to win, with Dixon leading the way with 33 points. Wilcox and Holden were huge with Baxter in foul trouble; the two combined for 31 points.
Two days later, Maryland defeated Indiana, 64-52, in the championship game, with Dixon scoring a game-high 18 and Baxter adding 15. Dixon and Baxter hugging as national champions after the final buzzer — their final game in Maryland uniforms — is one of the more indelible images in Terps history.
“Throwing the ball in the air, me and Juan on the ground, we couldn’t believe it,” Baxter said. “We were so ecstatic that we actually did it because we felt like we should’ve [done] it the year before, but things didn’t pan out the way that they should have. But we were able to redeem ourselves, and we really showed our resilience and just how relentless we were.”
Issue 231: March 2017