SYRACUSE, New York (Ticker) -- Maryland seniors Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter had their numbers retired early in the season. They proceeded to retire Connecticut with their play down the stretch.
Dixon and Baxter combined for nine points in the final four minutes as top-seeded Maryland used some clutch play to outlast second-seeded Connecticut, 90-82, in the East Region final.
"We just ground out the win somehow," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "There had to be a way to win that game and we found it." Connecticut (27-8) fought gamely throughout the contest and Caron Butler's two free throws provided a 77-74 lead with just over four minutes left. Dixon nailed a 3-pointer to tie the game and made two free throws for a 79-77 lead with three minutes left.
Tony Robertson's reverse layup tied the score, but Maryland (30-4) went inside to Baxter, who scored on a tough turnaround over Huskies defender Johnny Selvie. Baxter's two free throws extended the lead to 83-79 with 69 seconds left.
The Huskies got a free throw from freshman Emeka Okafor and needed a stop on the defensive end. The Terrapins ran down the shot clock before Steve Blake nailed a 3-pointer with 25 seconds to go for his first points, opening a six-point cushion.
"He was kind of off-balance," Huskies guard Tony Robertson said. "I tried to put a hand up. He just made a great shot." Maryland had called a timeout prior to Blake's shot and Williams had instructed his point guard to get the ball to Dixon or Baxter. But Blake had other ideas.
"In the huddle before Blake hit that three, coach was diagramming the play and saying, 'Get Juan off the screen or get it inside to Lonny,'" Dixon said. "Blake just said, 'I'm taking that jump shot." "I didn't think he'd shoot it from that far," Williams said.
Baxter scored 29 points and grabbed nine rebounds while Dixon, Maryland's all-time leading scorer, finished with 27 points.
Baxter's presence down low resulted in plenty of free throws as he made 15-of-18.
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun felt that the Terrapins' experience was a factor.
"I would say it is," Calhoun said. "We have been there in 20 situations, they have been there in 60 situations, like against Duke in Cameron Indoor, win or lose. We're young but I would play them tomorrow." "They just carried us on their backs," Terrapins guard Drew Nicholas said. "That's what senior leadership is all about. They did a great job." Maryland scored the last eight points of the first half for a 44-37 halftime lead. Tahj Holden's long 3-pointer at the buzzer seemed to give the Terrapins momentum heading into the locker room.
Connecticut was undaunted and quickly got back in the game because of Butler's strong play. Butler scored 26 of his 32 points in the second half and made 11-of-14 free throws.
Butler did all the scoring in a 7-1 run that gave Connecticut a 56-54 lead with 12:34 left. He added four free throws for a 62-60 lead with 10:28 left.
"My team was in a situation where they needed me," Butler said. "I wasn't in the game in the first half due to foul trouble. I tried to come in and lead them." Four straight points by Butler and a layup by Taliek Brown gave the Huskies a 75-72 lead with just over five minutes left. Baxter made two free throws but Butler responded with a pair to restore the three-point edge with 4:07 left.
Dixon's 3-pointer that tied the game seemed to take some life out of the Huskies. Maryland was poised and efficient down the stretch while Butler and Connecticut finally slowed down.
"There are a lot of guys who want the ball," Williams said. "We know where the ball should go and that is part of being an unselfish team." The Terrapins had trouble with the Huskies' penetration and switched to a zone defense midway through the first half. They used the zone almost exclusively down the stretch.
Robertson scored 15 points and Brown added 12 for Connecticut, which has no seniors in its rotation, although there is speculation that Butler will turn pro. The Huskies were handled in routine fashion by Maryland, 77-65, on December 3 but grew into a much more formidable foe in March.
"The circumstances tonight were difficult," Calhoun said. "I believe that our team can beat anyone in the United States and I believe that more so today than a month ago." The Terrapins will meet Midwest Region champion Kansas next weekend in Atlanta.