Maryland won the first NCAA basketball championship in program history, and the first for their coach, the respected veteran Gary Williams, at the 2002 Final Four. What’s more, the events of the previous year made the long-awaited title even sweeter.
Maryland had made the Final Four in 2001, but coughed up a 22-point lead to hated rival Duke in the national semi-final. It resulted in a long offseason and with a veteran group in the fold, the Terps were ranked second in the nation to open the season.
The Terps lost their opener to Arizona and another non-conference test to Oklahoma. It marked an early portion of the schedule were Maryland was playing well, but not dominant, as a 99-78 loss at Duke on January 17 seemed to demonstrate. It was after this loss that Williams’ team really began to click. Juan Dixon averaged 20 ppg in the backcourt, with Lonny Baxter getting 15 points/8 rebounds per game up front.
Maryland won twelve in a row to close the regular season, including an 87-73 payback win over the Dookies in College Park. Even though the Terps lost in the ACC tournament, they got the #1 seed in the 2002 NCAA Tournament’s East Regional.
Maryland beat Kentucky and UConn to win the East Regional, then won a highly anticipated battle with Kansas at the Final Four in Atlanta. The Terps’ 97-88 win was deceptively close, as they led by as much as twenty in the second half.
The opponent in Monday night’s championship game was Indiana, who was a story unto themselves. It was the second season for head coach Mike Davis, who had taken over amidst a firestorm after IU forced out legendary head coach Bob Knight over a trumped-up incident with a student.
Indiana did not have a great year, but they finished third in the Big Ten and were the #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Forward Jared Jeffries, averaging 15 points/8 rebounds per game was the kind of player that made the Hoosiers scary in a one-game shot.
Jeffries delivered 24 points/15 rebounds in a shocking upset of Duke in the Sweet 16. The rest of the bracket collapsed around Indiana, and they were able to ride that one big win to the Final Four.
In the national semi-finals, IU beat Oklahoma thanks to a stunning 41-3 scoring advantage in the battle of the benches. It was an ironic result, because OU coach Kelvin Sampson would eventually replace Davis in Bloomington, but right now, the Indiana boss was the toast of the nation and the anti-Knight media.
Monday night belonged to Dixon and Maryland. Indiana had its moments, and led by a point midway through the second half. But Dixon scored 18 points, was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player and the Terps claimed the title, 64-52.
Davis would disappear into obscurity, the wins over Duke and Oklahoma looking more like lightning in a bottle than anything else. Perhaps more surprising is that Williams never again fielded a truly outstanding national championship contender. There were good teams, big wins and NCAA Tournament berths, but the 2002 Final Four was his last shining moment.