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A Staggering Achievement
Grant Wahl
April 08, 2002
Steadied down the stretch by the unflappable Juan Dixon, Maryland overcame a multitude of errors to win its first national championship
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April 08, 2002

A Staggering Achievement

Steadied down the stretch by the unflappable Juan Dixon, Maryland overcame a multitude of errors to win its first national championship

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These days Williams happily attends David's birthday parties, takes him to the zoo and even crawls with the towheaded two-year-old into his nylon-mesh playpen during trips to Columbus. Williams recently gave David a sweatshirt that says PUT ME IN COACH, and he purchased a special kid-sized bed for his grandson's visits to Maryland. "It's almost like a do-over," Williams says. "When my daughter was two, I didn't realize how much fun that was because I'd be thinking, I hope I can get that job, or, We've gotta go see this kid play."

The boss's new approach to his own life applies to his team as well. Williams lets his players take half-court shots to end most practices ("When I played, it was, 'Practice is over, get dressed,' " says assistant Matt Kovarik, a former Terps guard), and he offered an emotional apology to the team after its ACC tournament semifinal loss to North Carolina State last month, taking full blame for abandoning an effective zone defense that the players wanted to stick with.

But the kinder, gentler Williams was nowhere to be found on Monday night, not when he called a timeout after Indiana had tied the game at 40-40 with less than 12 minutes remaining. "There was a lot of yelling," says junior forward Ryan Randle. "After he calmed down, he told us we had to find a way to win. We knew if we started pounding it inside, we'd be all right." Duly admonished, Baxter bulled his way to the basket for a layup on the next trip down-court, a scene that was repeated frequently down the stretch as the Terps' burlier frontcourt of Baxter, Tahj Holden and Chris Wilcox dominated Indiana's Jeffries, Jeff Newton and Jarrad Odle.

These Terrapins have the distinction of being the first team to win a national title without a McDonald's High School All-American since that honorific was created in 1978. Williams has built his program on unheralded prospects like Baxter, a once-overweight forward who played in the shadow of an NBA draft pick (Korleone Young) on his high school team at Hargrave Military Academy. Likewise, before Wilcox morphed into a surefire NBA lottery pick, the 6'9" sophomore forward was a project from a backwater town (Whiteville, N.C.). "The longer you coach, the more you realize you don't have to have the best talent," Williams says. "You can beat teams that might be a little more talented than you are if you're willing to work harder. Plus it's more fun. You're not dealing with a bunch of guys who are upset that they're still in college when they're juniors."

Or, as Randle cracked after the Terps had dispatched Kansas (and its four McDonald's selects) 97-88 on Saturday, "Man, I guess we're gonna have to be Burger King All-Americans."

In that case the smallest of small fries is the perfect complement to Maryland's Whoppers. Dixon was a 6'1", 145-pound wraith upon graduating from Baltimore's Calvert Hall High—"My AAU coach, Anthony Lewis, called me World," says Dixon, "because my head stood out so much on my body"—but Williams decided to take a chance on him when he saw Dixon play at the Peach Jam, an AAU tournament in Augusta, the summer before his senior year. "It was like a thousand degrees down there," Williams recalls. "The game was a 20-point blowout, his team was losing, and with two minutes left he dove on the court for a loose ball. You see that and you say, Well, he's probably going to work pretty hard when he gets to college."

Coaching careers can be made on such tiny decisions. In his freshman year Dixon got better just by lining up against All-America Steve Francis every day in practice. He learned how to tighten up his footwork on offense and defense, increasing his efficiency. He studied tape until his eyes glazed over, learning his opponents' schemes. And he lifted weights like a Venice Beach tough guy, improving his bench press from 100 pounds to 230 and packing power into his twiggy legs. "When I first got to Maryland, I couldn't grab the rim," Dixon says. "Now I'm dunking on a consistent basis." More than that, he's a 165-pound first-team All-America with a physique that Williams compares to a middleweight boxer's.

In Dixon, Williams also discovered a kindred spirit, the lone Terrapin who isn't afraid to give Williams some of his own medicine—"The only one," Patsos says, "who will really give as good as he gets." During Maryland's opening-round defeat of Siena, Williams went apoplectic after Dixon missed an ill-advised three-pointer, whereupon Dixon turned and screamed, "Coach, shut the f—-up!"

Warning-label utterances are nothing new to Dixon, who, in the final minutes before every tournament game, would pop Jay-Z's The Blueprint into his CD player, listen to track 6 (U Don't Know) and conclude by repeating the last line three times: "I will not lose ever. I will not lose ever. I will not lose ever." In Saturday's semifinal Dixon put those words into action with his jump shot, matching his career high with 33 points to sink the Jayhawks. "Can you say a guy had a quiet 33?" Terps guard Drew Nicholas asked afterward. "Everything he got was in the context of the offense. It was amazing."

After Kansas had taken a 13-2 lead, Williams delivered a spittle-laced philippic. ("If we're gonna lose this game, we're gonna lose it fighting. We aren't gonna be punks!") Dixon answered by scoring 10 straight points, but his finest moment came later, after another on-court exchange with his coach. With just under two minutes to go, the Jayhawks had whittled an 83-63 Terrapins lead to 87-82. Memories of last year's Final Four collapse against Duke, in which Maryland had gagged on a 22-point first-half advantage, came flooding back to Williams, who later admitted that he'd begun to contemplate what he'd say in the postmortem press conference if the Terps choked again.

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