COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Leave it to the point guard to provide the perfect overview about Maryland basketball’s Final Four/Championship Reunion weekend.
Steve Blake, the Terrapins’ all-time leader in assists, said, “Once we get together it’s like old times – we’re joking on each other, laughing and having fun. It’s special. We created a lot of memories, so for us to be able to come back and share that and just kind of see where everyone is at in life is really special.”
And it was special for a capacity Xfinity Center crowd that gave the players and coaches who returned from the 2000-02 teams a huge ovation at halftime of the Iowa game Saturday. Many of those fans have vivid memories of Maryland’s first Final Four in 2001, and the magical championship run in 2002.
The members of those teams have those memories, too.
“In a word, it was awesome,” said Calvin McCall, the backup guard who also starred in football. “Everyone was so intent on making up for the year before (a national semifinal loss to Duke), it was an awesome run. On that team there was no jealousy, there was no one guy getting too much credit. No one cared about that stuff. It was just a really fun team to play for.”
A couple of 2000-01 losses to Duke come up often in the discussion of Coach Gary Williams’ team finally breaking through to first reach the Final Four, and then come back and take the title the following year. Maryland finished 25-11 in 2000-01, but squandered a 22-point to the rival Blue Devils in the semifinals. In all reality, the moment that buzzer sounded in the 95-84 loss, it was the beginning of Maryland’s championship chase the following season.
“I was very concerned with the way we lost to Duke, whether that would be enough for the players (just reaching the Final Four),” recalled Williams. “They had never been to the Final Four before, okay, so we achieved that. Now what do you do next year? I found out pretty fast from that team. We were going to take two weeks off, but the first week we were back, they were in the weight room, Blake and all those guys. And then I knew we had a shot. I knew we were good enough if we did everything right.”
Led by seniors like Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, along with Blake and a deep, veteran nucleus, the Terrapins did do everything right.
“For me, it’s pride, being from the state of Maryland, Silver Spring, and always wanting to come to the University of Maryland,” said Baxter, MVP of the 2001 Regional in Anaheim. “We thought that we were going to win that year. We had our minds set on it and we were that good, but we came up short. It was terrible the way we lost and we wanted to redeem ourselves. We didn’t want to go out like chumps. We felt like we were champs and we wanted to prove it to the world.
Terence Morris, one of only three seniors on the 2000-01 team (along with Mike Mardesich, and the now deceased LaRon Cephas), saw it coming, too, even though he was off to the NBA before the championship season. Of course, he and Dixon had been plotting such a scenario for years.
“This is no exaggeration, but from my junior year when we faced UCLA in the Sweet 16, and lost to them, me and Juan talked about it – what we thought the team could do,” said Morris. “After that loss we talked about redeeming ourselves and coming back better. We got a little further and then the next year, the guys built on that.”
But even that following season on their way to that historic first Final Four, the Terrapins had their ups and downs. A late January loss to Duke in Cole Field House almost derailed everything. Maryland lost a 10-point lead in the final minute and fell 98-96 in overtime, going on a tailspin that saw the Terrapins lose five of their next six, before securing a big win at Wake Forest.
“We were playing okay, but we just couldn’t get a win,” said Williams. “We won at Wake Forest and then, after losing to Duke here, we beat Duke on Senior Night and that propelled us to the Final Four.”
Morris, who is retired and teaching basketball in Houston, said the skid the team hit – and the way they responded told him all he needed to know about his teammates. “A lot of teams would have had their season end after a loss like we had, and then the next few games,” he said. “We knew we could get back to where we needed to be. We got a win and we got that feeling back. We got hot at the right time.”
Tahj Holden recalls another Duke game that helped trigger the Terrapins en route to that 32-4 championship campaign. In Maryland’s 87-73 Cole win over the Blue Devils, Blake made a season-defining play, when he took the ball from Duke point guard Jason Williams, who was getting instructions from coach Mike Krzyzewski just before the half.
“I saw Steve Blake time it and you could see him saying to himself, ‘If he turns again, I’m going to go get this ball,’ and that’s just what he did,” said Holden. “That’s what he did, and finished it with a layup and we went in (at the half) with the lead.”
Holden, coming off the bench for Baxter and the NBA-bound Chris Wilcox, was a prime example of another of those teams’ strengths – depth. Sharpshooting Drew Nicholas, who filled in at point and shooting guard, on those teams was another pivotal piece.
Nicholas, now a scout with the Minnesota Timberwolves, talked about the mentality he and other Terps off the bench shared. “It was a pride thing. I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t a huge drop-off from Juan Dixon to me, though I’m sure there was. Juan was that good. Everyone bought into the whole team role and everyone tried to perform that role to the best of their abilities.”
Dixon and Byron Mouton showed up late in the weekend festivities, but were there for the halftime introductions before an enthusiastic crowd. Earlier, members of the teams had gathered for a special Friday dinner and again for lunch Saturday.
When Mardesich had a chance to speak at the luncheon, he reminded his former teammates that they were a culmination of a much longer journey in the school’s illustrious basketball history. “We had great success in ’01 and ’02, but it was a gradual build. There was such a positive impact of previous teams, kind of chipping away. I think of Matt Kovarik’s teams and the team with Steve Francis. I wanted to stress their contributions, as well.”
Kovarik, an assistant on the Final Four teams, was on hand, and Jimmy Patsos, now the head coach at Siena, was also able to get to town Saturday night. Kovarik is now an attorney with the GuardHill Financial Group.
Williams and some of the players pointed out that it had been since the 2002 White House visit that so many of them had been back together. Blame a lot of that on Blake and Wilcox. Blake played 12 seasons in the NBA before retiring last year. He lives in Portland, where he runs his basketball camps, including one he annually brings to Germantown each summer, too.
Wilcox retired in 2013, after 11 seasons in the NBA. He was selected 8th overall in the 2002 Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Wilcox, who came on so strong down the stretch during Maryland’s championship run, recalls the mindset of those teams. “I think we were all hungry. We didn’t have any All-Americans. We didn’t have blue chips, we had guys that had chips on their shoulder because we wanted the championship. If you did your part, we won games and we had different guys come through all the time.”
“No one in the country probably thought we had a chance to win it except us at least when we got here,” said Blake. “We were determined to be the hardest working team in the country with one of the hardest working coaches. He molded us to the point where we just fit so well together. We took pride in that and we took pride in our defense. The way we loved each other off the court was evident in the way we played on the court.”
Blake hit a big three-pointer late in the Regional Final against UConn in 2002, the play that allowed the Terrapins to pull out a 90-82 victory. A 97-88 Final Four win over Kansas followed, and then the 64-52 championship against Indiana.
Blake admitted after so much basketball over the last nearly 20 years, some of those games run together for him like a “blur,’ but not the feeling he had playing for Maryland back in the day.
“That UConn game sticks out because they were so good and so talented and it was just back and forth and back and forth,” he said. “There were a lot of NBA guys on the floor in that game and when we beat them I think we knew we could win the championship.
“It was fun then, cutting down nets and just being with these guys.”
Seemed like old times in College Park for those Terrapins this weekend.