ATLANTA - This wasn't the easiest or best way for Maryland to do it, but Saturday's closer-than-it-should-have-been 97-88 win might have been the only way.
For the Terrapins to chase away the demons that have tortured their program and their coach for so long, it was probably fitting that they had to do away with their infamous inability to hold a big lead in a big game.
Maryland squandered almost all of a 20-point advantage in the last six minutes against Kansas at the Final Four, and the bitter memories came rushing back - of blowing a 22-point lead against Duke in last year's Final Four, and of watching the Blue Devils move on to clip the nets after winning it all.
"I've been saying the whole week that if we ever got in that position again, where we were up 20 or 22 points, that we were going to find a way to pull the game out, and we did," said senior guard Juan Dixon, whose team watched the Jayhawks pull as close as four points in the last two minutes.
"It's just our experience. We grew a lot over the last year or so."
The Terps showed they learned from a year's worth of torment by holding off the Jayhawks before 53,378 fans at the Georgia Dome. Now they're in the national championship for the first time ever.
Maryland, the top seed in the East, will play Indiana on Monday night in the finals. The Hoosiers (25-11), seeded No. 5 in the South Region, engineered a 73-64 upset of West No. 2 seed Oklahoma in Saturday's other semifinal game.
"I don't think I'll forget last year until we finally win a national championship," forward Lonny Baxter said. "That's what the goal was after that game last year."
The Terps (31-4) got a stellar game from their best player - Dixon sizzled by scoring a game-high 33 points, tying his career high - while the Jayhawks (33-4) got next to nothing from theirs when it mattered.
Kansas center Drew Gooden, a first-team All-American, was mired in foul trouble for most of the night and finished with 15 points. That number is deceiving, considering Gooden had four points at halftime and wasn't a factor for much of the night.
"Kansas doesn't really like people in their space," Baxter said. "We just really played up on them tight and didn't allow them to get free runs at the basket."
For Kansas coach Roy Williams, it signaled the beginning of yet another long off-season filled with endless questions regarding his inability to win a national title. This was the third Final Four for Williams, who took over at Kansas in 1988, and the third time he went home bitterly disappointed.
"It always hurts," he said in tears after the game. "It doesn't make a difference if it's the Final Four or the second round or whatever."
Kansas found itself down by nine points early in the second half but was within 56-52 when guard Keith Langford hit two free throws with 13:03 remaining.
Then things unraveled in a hurry. Maryland got things going inside and outside, a combination that can make almost any team - yes, even Kansas - look woefully inept.
The Terps amassed a withering 14-0 run that put them up 70-55, hitting seven straight shots from the field during the spurt, and forward Tahj Holden made it eight in a row on the next possession with a tip-in.
That wasn't all. Maryland scored on its next two trips to make it 10 straight productive possessions, capped when forward Chris Wilcox dunked off a pass from point guard Steve Blake to stake the Terps to a 78-61 advantage with 7:53 left.
Wilcox finished with 18 points and nine rebounds
Maryland stretched its lead to a game-high 20 points when Dixon hit a 3-pointer from the left wing with 6:09 remaining, but Kansas managed to make things more than scary for the Terps by amassing a 19-4 run.
"I found myself glancing at the clock a little too often," Dixon said. "I just wanted the game to be over, and that's not good."
Dixon made things better by scoring off a baseline drive that put the Terps up 89-82 with 1:13 remaining. Then he hit one of two free throws with 19.8 seconds left to give his team a five-point cushion.
"Any basket they get is so huge in that situation," said Kansas forward Nick Collison, who scored a team-high 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting. "Dixon stepped up and made two or three that were backbreakers."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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