In the Maryland men’s basketball team’s journey to the national championship in 2002, there was perhaps no better game than the Terps’ Elite Eight matchup against Connecticut at Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome.
And in that game, there was no bigger shot than when Juan Dixon knotted the score at 77 with 3:46 to play in regulation. Maryland, which entered the game as the No. 1 seed in the East Region and had an overall record of 29-4, led at halftime, 44-37, against UConn, the No. 2 seed in that region. But Caron Butler, then a sophomore guard for the Huskies, exploded in the second half to give UConn a 77-74 lead with less than four minutes to play.
Dixon then sank the three to tie the game, part of a 27-point effort for the current Coppin State head coach that helped Maryland defeat UConn, 90-82.
Legendary Maryland men’s basketball coach Gary Williams called Dixon “one of the great clutch players in college basketball.”
“We were down three and we weren’t exactly stopping Caron Butler for Connecticut. He had 26 in the second half. If Juan misses that shot, they go down and score, they’re up five or six, I’m not sure we could win that game,” Williams said on Glenn Clark Radio March 18. “Steve Blake’s shot that he made later probably wouldn’t have mattered. In other words, it wouldn’t have given us the margin to win the game. It was probably the biggest clutch shot in Maryland basketball history.”
After the Dixon 3-pointer, the Terps outscored the Huskies, 13-5, the rest of the way. The most memorable shot of that stretch was from Blake, who only scored five points the entire contest. With 34 seconds left and Maryland up, 83-80, the Terps had to inbound the ball with 14 seconds on the shot clock. Prior to that, Blake had told his team during a timeout that he wanted to take the next shot – and so he did, putting the Terps up for good.
“Very simply, they made the plays down the stretch. When someone does that, it wasn’t our mistakes,” longtime UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun said on GCR March 17. “They were excellent in coming back to beat us. … They deserved it. The one thing that Gary could always do a great job with, he could implant his intensity into his team — now that’s a coaching gift, if you can make your team play as hard as you want them to, which Gary always did. It was a great game.”
Maryland center Lonny Baxter had 29 points and was 15-of-18 from the free-throw line, while Chris Wilcox had 13 and Tahj Holden added eight points off the bench. Though he only scored five points, Blake dished out six assists (Dixon and Drew Nicholas had three assists apiece).
But the star of the game was Butler, who went on to play in the NBA from 2002-2016. He had 32 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field and 11-of-14 shooting from the line. He was supported by Tony Robertson (15 points), Taliek Brown (12) and Ben Gordon (8).
The game was tied eight different times in the final 13 minutes of regulation.
“[UConn] had us for a long time in the second half, then we were tough enough in the last couple minutes to make some shots and play good enough defense to win that game,” Williams said. “Neither team backed off, and that’s what makes it a great game. I don’t know this for a fact, but your players talk to the other team’s players a lot of times after games in a normal year. Their guys said Jim Calhoun at halftime told his team that whoever would win this game was going to win the national championship. He proved to be right.”
Maryland went on to beat Kansas in the Final Four and Indiana in the national title game. Dixon had 33 points and Wilcox had 18 against the Jayhawks, the latter crucial due to the early foul trouble Baxter found himself in. Dixon had 18 and Baxter had 15 against the Hoosiers, helping lift the Terps to their first-ever national men’s basketball title.
The championship was the crowning achievement for Williams, who won 461 games for his alma mater from 1989-2011. Calhoun said Williams’ “gift” was that he could empower his players through sheer force of his personality.
“You knew when they threw the ball up against Gary, you had a two-hour fight — I mean a fight, I don’t care what the score was, it was going to be a fight,” said Calhoun, who won three national championships at UConn. “And that’s a unique gift. Yes, he was a terrific X’s-and-O’s coach. Yes, he knew how his team wanted to play. But the extra, added ingredient is their fight, clearly and very definitively. He was able to get teams — I don’t care what they look like, how big they were, small they were, doesn’t make any difference — to play at a different kind of level than most teams they played against.”
For more from Williams, listen to the full interview here:
For more from Calhoun, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics