Thanks to a dynamic blend of senior leadership, tournament experience and team chemistry the University of Maryland completed its year-long quest to return to the Final Four and capture the NCAA men’s basketball title by defeating Indiana 64-52 last Monday night in Atlanta.

The moment was special for everyone in the Maryland community ? coaches, players, fans, students, faculty and alumni. The Terps officially began working towards this goal the day after they blew a 22-point lead to Duke in last year’s national semifinal.

From their season-opening loss to a young Arizona team, the Terrapins learned to respect their opponents and not overlook anyone. Ranked in the top four most of the season, Maryland was a constant target for every opponent, both weak and strong. Taking nothing for granted and playing each game with the same amount of determination and intensity helped them steer free of major upsets and remain among the country’s elite.

While Maryland was known for its balance and depth this season, the Terps could not have accomplished what they did without their heart and soul.

Juan Dixon is a special player. At 6’3” and barely 160 pounds, the resilient senior shooting guard understands how the game works and has the innate ability to do whatever it takes to win. Hitting shots, making steals or simply forcing his teammates to remain focused everyday in practice, Dixon vowed to put the Terps on his back and do anything and everything he could to ensure that the his team would not lose.

When his teammates looked to him for scoring, he dropped 33 points on favored Kansas in the semifinal. When they looked to him for defense he made five steals and helped create several other turnovers against Indiana in the title game. When they looked to him for leadership, Dixon never hesitated to take over a game.

Maryland had never beaten Indiana. Neither had Williams, who coached at American, Boston College and Ohio State before returning to his alma mater in 1989. The Hoosiers had five championship banners hanging in Bloomington, while the Terps yearned for their first.

But the fabricated subplots and meaningless statistics thrown around in anticipation of the match-up failed to account for perhaps the biggest difference in Monday night’s championship game ? the heart of Juan Dixon.

Glancing at his line from Monday night, Dixon’s 18 points paled in comparison to his other NCAA Tournament outputs. But in this case, the box score fails to tell the whole story.

Dixon’s go-ahead 3-pointer, just 13 seconds after Indiana had finally taken the lead in the second half, and his off-balanced floater down the stretch helped seal the win for Maryland, and demonstrated one last time why Dixon is so valuable to his team.

One of this year’s favorites to win the championship, the Terps took anything but the high road to Atlanta. By the numbers, they actually had the toughest route in Tournament history, playing the 16, 8, 4, 2 and 1 seeds in order to get to the title game. Their last five wins came against previous champions.

This run was so special for several reasons. Every player contributed, from All-American Dixon to walk-on reserve Earl Badu. Each player brought with him a determination and passion to improve at practice every single day.

Senior Byron Mouton transferred from Tulane, where he had been the leading scorer as a freshman and sophomore. Clearly capable of putting up big numbers on offense, Mouton readily accepted his new role with the Terps as an emotional leader and role player.

You would be hard pressed to find a group more closely knit than the Terps. They truly enjoyed playing the game, and playing it with each other. There were no hidden agendas on this team. No animosity between players and coaches, which is rare in this age of “How do I get to the NBA?” attitudes that infect other teams. For every hit they took this year, the Terps had a barrage of counter-punches ready to throw.

On Monday night, this group became the first team to win a National Championship without having a single McDonald’s High School All-American on its roster since the establishment of the honor in 1978.

Next year’s Terps will have a much different look. Starters Dixon, Mouton and center Lonny Baxter all will have graduated and power forward Chris Wilcox may opt to leave early for the NBA. Point guard Steve Blake becomes the leader of the team and reserves Drew Nicholas, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle step into the starting lineup. A mix of inexperienced returning players and freshmen will fill out the remainder of the rotation.

While the future of the program matters dearly to the coaching staff and fans, it is not a main concern to them at this point in time. It took five grueling months of battle to reach the pinnacle of the college basketball world. But Williams and his players knew it took much longer ? one year since the heart-breaking loss to Duke in the Final Four.

Four years since Dixon and Baxter began their illustrious college careers. Thirteen years since Williams grabbed the reigns of a program in shambles and began to resuscitate it. And finally, 79 years the Terps had to wait before it was their turn to be crowned national champions.

One last thing is also certain in College Park ? it is finally time to celebrate.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.



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