ANAHEIM, California (Ticker) -- For many years under coach Gary Williams, Maryland has had a reputation for underachieving in big games. That cloud finally has been lifted.
The Terrapins reached the Final Four for the first time in school history, using their quickness and deadly 3-point shooting to race past top-seed Stanford, 87-73, in an NCAA Tournament West Region final at the Arrowhead Pond.
Known for its patience and execution, Stanford could not match Maryland's overall speed and outside shooting and was denied its third trip to the Final Four and second in four years.
Lonny Baxter had 24 points on 11-of-18 shooting after scoring 26 in Thursday's 76-66 victory over Georgetown. Juan Dixon poured in 14 of his 18 points in the second half for Maryland (25-10), which made 9-of-13 3-pointers and had five players in double figures.
"We were just desperate to make the Final Four and get coach there for the first time," Baxter said. "We aren't satisfied. We want to go on and win a national championship." After so many disappointing NCAA Tournament losses, the Terrapins came through with the kind of inspired performance Maryland fans and alumni have been dreaming about for decades.
The school will face Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke for the fourth time this season in the national semifinals next week in Minneapolis.
"Players always win games like this," Williams said. "They knew they had the confidence that was necessary to beat a team as good as Stanford. That was the key thing." But it took 18 NCAA Tournament appearances for Maryland to finally get to the Final Four.
"I'm sure he (Gary Williams) is relieved and ecstatic," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "He had to deal with the issue of having so many good basketball teams without advancing to the Final Four. Now he has the answer." Williams, who also has coached at Boston College and Ohio State, also reached his first Final Four in a 23-year career and did what Lefty Driesell never accomplished at Maryland.
"The Lefthander" elevated Maryland's program to national prominence in the 1970s, calling it the "UCLA of the East." But he never could take the final step, losing in regional finals in 1973 and 1975.
Williams took over a Maryland program in shambles in 1989. The Terrapins were on probation at the time and were still trying to recover from the cocaine overdose death of Len Bias.
Before this season, the Terrapins were 0-4 in "Sweet 16" games under Williams. But their worst NCAA Tournament loss was an embarrassing 105-70 second-round defeat to UCLA last season.
However, they cleared a major hurdle Thursday by reaching the "Elite Eight" for the first time in Williams' 12 years at Maryland. With that burden behind them, the Terrapins appeared the looser team and took control late in the first half.
"I knew we had a very good practice from the standpoint of being able to concentrate yesterday," Williams said. "I knew we would come out and play well. Whether that would be good enough against Stanford, I didn't know. The biggest difference was we shot the ball today." Stanford (31-3) could not have expected Maryland to shoot as well as it did. The Terrapins hit just 6-of-29 3-pointers in their first three tournament games, but they repeatedly burned the Cardinal from beyond the arc.
"You have one opportunity to go to the Final Four," Montgomery said. "You realize you got to play a good team to get there. They played great. Every time we made a play, they had an answer." Maryland shot 56 percent (18-of-32) from the field in the first half to open a 42-32 lead despite attempting only one foul shot. The Cardinal scored the first seven points of the second half to close to 42-39 on Casey Jacobsen's 3-pointer with 18:20 left.
But the Terrapins continued to make shots, reeling off a 14-5 surge and opening a 56-41 lead on Dixon's jumper with 14:30 to go. While the Cardinal stayed close, they could not get enough stops on defense.
"We're proud of ourselves," Baxter said. "It doesn't get any better than this. We're on a roll. We're playing really good. This is the most excited I've been in my whole life." Ryan Mendez scored 18 points and Jacobsen 14 for Stanford. But Jacobsen was not much of a factor, making just 4-of-11 shots after scoring a career-high 27 points against Cincinnati.
"They were very physical," Jacobsen said. "I felt double-played, especially in the second half. "If they are gonna play play me that way, there is not much I can do. We got ourselves in too big a hole. At no point in this game we're we ahead." Tahj Holden gave Maryland a spark off the bench with 14 points, hitting three 3-pointers in the first half. Steve Blake also hit three 3-pointers and added 13 points, while Terrence Morris contributed 11 points.
Maryland dropped three straight in February and its season appeared to be on the verge of collapsing following a 74-71 home loss to Florida State on February 14.
But the Terrapins always have been considered a dangerous team, if they could only put everything together. They finally have.
"The one thing I realized when we were losing was that it wasn't a selfish thing in terms of guys wanting to score more, but certain guys were just trying to do too much," Williams said. "Once we just agreed to that, we were fine." This was the Maryland team that went toe-to-toe in all three meetings against Duke and easily could have won all three. The Terrapins blew a 10-point lead in the final minute of 98-96 overtime home loss before winning at Cameron Indoor Stadium in late February.
The third meeting was a classic as Duke edged Maryland, 84-82, in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.