In his 23rd season as a college head coach, Gary Williams finally reached the Final Four. He had risen from AU to Boston College and then to Ohio State before returning to Maryland in 1989 to try to revive his alma mater’s program which was reeling from NCAA sanctions.
But not only did Maryland blow a 22-point lead in the 2001 national semifinals in the first Final Four in school history, it did so against archrival Duke.
“You hope that your team isn’t satisfied just to be there, you want to win the thing,” Williams said. “When you have a loss like that it can either wreck your confidence or make you stronger. It made us stronger. The players were in the weight room on their own the week after that game so I knew we’d be OK.”
The 2001-02 Terps were more than OK. Led by wisp-like senior shooting guard Juan Dixon, bullish senior center Lonny Baxter and sweet-passing junior point guard Steve Blake, Maryland lost its opener to Arizona but went 24-2 during the rest of the regular season, losing only at Oklahoma and at, of course, Duke. That fabulous record included an incredible 15-1 mark in the ACC which featured a 14-point revenge victory over the Blue Devils and a romp over Virginia in the final game at venerable Cole Field House to finish a perfect home season in front of many of the former players who had starred there.
“We were really good,” Williams said. “Four of our starting five (including sophomore power forward Chris Wilcox) made the NBA and (senior small forward) Byron Mouton was really close to being an NBA player. And when we substituted, there really wasn’t a dropoff. We had two big men in Taj Holden and Ryan Randle and Drew Nicholas was a great shooter. I don’t think there was a better player in college basketball than Juan and Steve was leading the nation in assists going into the (NCAA) tournament. We had players who had played together for a while and who played well together.”
Being upset by N.C. State in the ACC Tournament semifinals didn’t faze the Terps, who thumped Siena and Wisconsin to get back to the Sweet 16. Maryland then topped powerhouses Kentucky and Connecticut to return to the Final Four where a strong Kansas team awaited.
“We got down early to Kansas, but then we went on something like a 35-7 run,” Williams recalled. “We were good enough to do something like that even against a team like Kansas. It was big to win in the semis because that had been our stumbling block the year before.”
Maryland was favored to beat Indiana in the final in the Georgia Dome, but the Terps weren’t overconfident. After all, this was Maryland, not haughty Duke or North Carolina for whom national title games were old hat.
“When you coach in the ACC, you wake up every day chasing North Carolina and Duke,” said Williams, whose team was picked ahead of the former and behind the latter in the preseason polls. “We were nervous because it was the championship game, but we played great defense and held them to 52 points.”
After outracing Kansas with 97 points, the versatile Terps ground it out to beat the Hoosiers with just 64.
“When we won, it wasn’t a sense of relief,” Williams said. “It was all joy. I didn’t need the championship to validate me. I had coached for 30 years in the Big East, the Big Ten and the ACC against all the great coaches. I knew what I had accomplished.”
But as it became clear that Maryland was going to win the title, Williams couldn’t help but think about his long and winding road to the pinnacle: “I thought about starting as the JV coach at Woodrow Wilson High in Camden, N.J.; about Dave Gavitt, who was there that night and who was kinda like my mentor, and Tom Davis, who gave me my first college (assistant) job at Lafayette; to coaching at Fort Myer for American U and at Roberts Center, the smallest gym in the Big East, for Boston College. And I thought about Bud Millikan, who I played for at Maryland and who was the best coach to play for if you wanted to become a coach because … he really taught the fundamentals.”
Over the ensuing nine seasons before his retirement last spring, Williams’ Terps wouldn’t get past the Sweet 16 and combined for just six NCAA victories, as many as they won in 2002 alone. But those disappointments make the national championship an even brighter memory as its 10th anniversary passed yesterday.
“It’s amazing how quick it goes,” Williams said. “When you’re coaching, you’re always getting ready for the next season. I announced games on the Big Ten Network this year and I was there the night they honored Bo Ryan’s first Wisconsin team which we beat at MCI Center in that tournament. So you start thinking about it being 10 years. I’m in touch with a lot of the guys: Chris, Steve (who are still in the NBA), Juan and Taj. Lonny and Drew are still playing in Europe. I can’t believe those guys are all in their 30s. I think of them as they were back then.”
As does anyone who watched those Terps triumph and finally erase Maryland’s “Can’t Win The Big One” stigma.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.