When Maryland built a 20-point lead over Kansas with just over six minutes left in Saturday’s game, Terps fans wanted to celebrate, but knew they couldn’t. Not after last year. Not after their beloved Terrapins blew a 22 point lead over Duke in the Final Four. Not after years and years as the best college basketball program never to win a championship.
As it turned out, the fans’ lack of premature celebration was well warranted. After a brilliant performance over the games first 34 minutes, the Maryland players suddenly went crazy. Forgetting that the clock was their friend and not their enemy, the Terps laid foul after foul on the grateful Jayhawks. Point after point was pouring in for Kansas without time running off the clock. Maryland was out of sync on offense, and out of their minds on defense. It looked like the Emydidae could become college basketball’s biggest choke artists.
Then something happened. With the chance to pull within two of the Terps, Jayhawks point guard Aaron Miles traveled with a little less than two minutes left in the game. The Kansas freshman’s gaffe allowed the Terrapins to regroup. Juan Dixon then proved once again that he is the most clutch player in the nation, sinking a jumper that gave Maryland their confidence back, and ultimately, the victory.
Maryland’s near-choke, combined with the prospect of playing for a national championship means only one thing: Gary Williams is now officially the sweatiest man alive.
As if the stress of Saturday’s game weren’t enough, college basketball’s most perspirant pedagogue must now strap on another of his spongy suits and prepare for the most nerve-wracking 40 minutes of his entire life. Tonight, his Terrapins will try to do what no Maryland team has ever done: win a national championship. That’s cause to make anyone sweat profusely, let alone the world’s most notoriously moist coach.
Though his team nearly lost a 20-point lead in a Final Four game for the second straight year, you’ve got to give Williams credit. After a magical run to the their first ever Final Four in 2001, the Terrapins were on the short list of teams to reach that plateau again this season. Of the teams on that list, only Maryland is still standing.
Despite the pressure of starting out the season ranked second, Maryland has endured. Though they suffered early season upset losses at the hands of Arizona and Oklahoma, the Terps marched on. Even after falling to NC State in the ACC tournament, the Terps maintained their confidence. Throughout the NCAA tournament, in spite of subpar play from key players like point guard Steve Blake, Maryland has sustained its intensity. No abundance of senior leadership can maintain that intensity on its own. Great teams require great coaches, and Gary Williams has shown that he is one of the best.
But it’s not over for Williams and the Terps. In the title game tonight, Maryland faces an Indiana team that is seemingly winning games with heart and guts alone. As magical as the dance has been for the Terps, Indiana’s has been twice the ride. The Hoosiers upset Duke, ruining Jason Williams’ last year in a Blue Devil uniform. They ended Kent State’s Cinderella run, wrecking things for Trevor Huffman and all of Northern Michigan. And last, but certainly not least, Indiana took down an Oklahoma team that looked unbreakable throughout the tournament.
Can the Hoosiers do it one more time? Perhaps, but the underdog factor is now gone. With the exception of Dick Vitale, who is enraptured with Juan Dixon’s silky stroke (“It’s incredible, baby!”), most of the pundits seem to think Indiana could win. That might be a bad thing for the Hoosiers, who seemed to enjoy staying alive once everyone had counted them out. Whatever the outcome, the game should not be a blowout for either side. As impressive as Indiana’s frontcourt of Jeffries, Newton and Leach is, Maryland’s corps of big men (Baxter, Wilcox, Holden and Randle) is better and deeper.
Maryland also has the edge in the backcourt, because Dixon is the best player on the floor. Still, Indiana’s got the edge in three point shooting and heart, so anything could happen. It should be a great game, and despite my uncertainty on the outcome, I am sure of one thing: No matter who wins, Gary Williams will sweat. A lot.