You’re going to have to indulge me on this one. I have no one to yell at and no incredible statement to make about a current sporting event.
Instead, if this column was called “Your Saturday Reality Check”, I would have gotten this perfectly to the date.
Ten years ago-Sunday, March 24, 2002-the University of Maryland met the University of Connecticut in the East Region Final (or the Elite 8 if you well) of the NCAA Tournament. The game was at the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University.
For full disclosure, I wasn’t there. It was my freshman year at the University of Maryland, but I didn’t make the trip. I didn’t make the trip to the Georgia Dome for the Final Four either, which is one of the greatest regrets of my still very young life. I actually think our own Luke Jones was at the game, but I’m just rambling now.
You certainly remember the shots that defined the game. The Terrapins trailed the Huskies 77-74 with just under four minutes to play as Caron Butler simply wouldn’t let UConn go away quietly. Juan Dixon calmly sank a three pointer from near the top of the key to even the game back up. Then in the final minute, a previously scoreless Steve Blake altered a play call in the huddle and used a ball fake to create an open three for himself to put the Terps up 86-80, effectively the final nail in the coffin of a 90-82 victory.
What I remember was how the game felt like the most intense college basketball game I had ever witnessed. While Gary Williams likely ruined an expensive suit due to sweat that afternoon, Glenn Clark also ruined a number of t-shirts and a pair of pajama pants. This was a game where neither team ever appeared to have the upper hand. Lonny Baxter was absolutely dominant in the paint against future NBA standout Emeka Okafor, but Butler’s 32 points kept the Huskies at Maryland’s heels all afternoon.
We’re planning to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the University of Maryland’s only basketball championship throughout the week on “The Reality Check” on AM1570 WNST.net. I’ve admitted regularly that I openly wept at Cole Field House that early April night (the anniversary of the championship is this Sunday for those scoring at home) in College Park. I had two goals for my life from about the time I was eight years old. One was to become a professional broadcaster, the other was to attend the University of Maryland.
Being a “Terp” was in my blood. My grandmother (a journalism teacher in Baltimore County and later professor at Morgan State University) is a University of Maryland alum. While I was too young for the Bob Wade era of Maryland basketball to mean much to me, the early years of the Gary Williams era (which were not always pretty) shaped who I wanted to be when I stepped on a basketball court at Chapel Hill Elementary School or Perry Hall Middle School. I pretended to be Evers Burns. I pretended to be Kevin McLinton. I ABSOLUTELY pretended to be Walt “The Wizard” Williams, Joe Smith, Keith Booth and Sarunas Jasikevicius.
I really had no idea I’d ever witness my heroes playing in a Final Four or for a national championship. I had felt the 1999 team (lead by Steve Francis) had a legitimate chance, but Erick Barkley and St. John’s extinguished those hopes in the Sweet 16. Just weeks before Maryland’s initial Final Four run in 2001 there were calls for the head of Gary Williams after an embarrassing streak of five losses in six games (including a “rock bottom” defeat at the hands of Florida State on Valentine’s Day).
But there was something about the 2001-2002 Terps that made you believe the entire time that team was capable of finally breaking through. The heartbreak of blowing a big loss to Duke in the Final Four the year earlier seemed to fuel them to an ACC regular season championship and back to that afternoon at the Carrier Dome. The confidence of an incredible group of upperclassmen was never lacking at any point during the season.
Maryland’s run to the National Championship was unprecedented. After an opening round win over Siena, the Terps faced a modern day “Murderer’s Row” of basketball programs as they ran through Wisconsin, Kentucky, UConn and then Kansas and Indiana. Maryland faced the highest seed they could possibly face in every round as a 1 seed (16, 8, 4, 2, 1, 1) as well. Yet somehow they never really seemed to be in danger of losing.
In the Final Four a huge second half lead was cut into by the Jayhawks, but it never appeared particularly nerve-racking. The Hoosiers briefly held a second half lead in the National Championship game, but a quick baseline jumper from Dixon turned the game back toward the favor of Maryland.
The only game that involved great drama was the UConn game. It was the type of drama that sees eight ties and seven lead changes in the final 13 minutes. It was the type of drama that almost could never be fairly described in words. (ESPN’s Dick Vitale described it as a “Maalox Masher” immediately after the game. He’s certainly a wordsmith if nothing else.)
It was the type of drama that made you think “whoever wins this game is winning a national championship” in the second half. At least it made me feel that way…and I was right.
To this day, this is still my absolute favorite game I’ve ever watched. More so than the Tennessee Titans/Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional Playoff in 2001, more so than the Mike Mussina/Randy Johnson showdown at Camden Yards in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS, even more so than the Andre Agassi/James Blake thriller at the 2005 U.S. Open. If your heart can take it, it’s worth reliving below.
I’m not sure mine can, but I’m still grateful for these memories some ten years later.