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Published: Tuesday, 4/2/2002

Terrapins had the most talent, then worked

ATLANTA - In case you haven't been paying attention, the Maryland Terrapins are the full-sized luxury sedan of the NCAA Tournament, with more options than Kansas or Oklahoma or Indiana or any of the other Final Four teams.

The Terrapins get pretty good mileage too. They rode the contributions of seniors Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton to a 64-52 victory against Indiana in the national championship game last night at the Georgia Dome.

It was easy enough to overlook the Terrapins, mostly due to coach Mike Davis and the Hoosiers' Shock the World tour. Fifth-seeded Indiana caught the entire country by surprise, upsetting No. 1-seeded Duke and No. 2-seeded Oklahoma to reach the finals.

But not only are the Terrapins abundantly talented, coach Gary Williams' ball club was just as tough if not tougher than Indiana, on a night when neither team shot the ball particularly well.

Coaches fantasize about having a team with the kind of experienced talent Gary Williams enjoys. Eat your heart out, Roy Williams, Kelvin Sampson and Mike Davis.

The Terrapins were making their second straight Final Four appearance, with most of the credit going to their three seniors. All that experience was supposed to pay major dividends on a night when it was either win or else.

At times, despite the edge in experience, Maryland appeared on the verge of panic. The Terrapins played great defense but committed 10 turnovers and only led 31-25 at halftime.

Then Indiana's deadly 3-point shooters got hot, pushing the Hoosiers to their first lead at 44-42 with just under 10 minutes remaining.

Just when Maryland looked like it was ready, willing and able to become the Hoosiers' next victim, the Terrapins' Big Three took charge.

Dixon, Baxter and Mouton combined for 37 points, 23 rebounds and eight steals last night. Maryland couldn't have won the school's first national title without them.

Dixon had a game-high 18 points and five steals. Baxter bulled his way to 15 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Mouton retrieved two loose balls that were converted into four critical points late.

Maryland played a remarkable game in Saturday's 97-88 semifinal victory against Kansas because it displayed superior athleticism, physical dominance and composure in the heat of battle.

The Terrapins fell behind 13-2 before climbing out of a ditch to lead by seven at halftime. Maryland led by 20 points in the second half but needed a Dixon jumper to finally send Kansas home.

Dixon picked up where he left off, scoring 11 first-half points against Indiana before going almost 22 minutes between baskets. Dixon's first hoop since the 10-minute mark in the first half, a 3-pointer, allowed Maryland to regain the lead at 45-44. Dixon stuck a dagger in the Hoosiers when he drilled another jumper from the wing for a 49-46 lead. Indiana never pulled closer.

In six NCAA Tournament games, Dixon averaged 25.8 points while the player-of-the-year debate focused on Drew Gooden of Kansas and eventual winner Jason Williams of Duke. It's clear after their postseason performances that Dixon is the top player.

Before last night's tip-off it was clear that Maryland had the nation's best team. What wasn't clear was whether underdog Indiana could play above its head one more time.

The Hoosiers played hard, but Maryland played harder. The Terrapins are national champions because they outworked the hardest-working college basketball team in America.

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at jharris@theblade.com.



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