Top seed Maryland overcame bouts with turnovers, some shaky shot selection and a subpar showing by point guard Steve Blake, not to mention a physical, determined Kentucky opponent that wore down in the closing minutes.
But the Terps played excellent defense, made their free throws in the clutch, wore down Kentucky inside in the second half and did enough dirty work to move one victory from their second consecutive trip to the Final Four by pulling away to a 78-68 victory in the East Regional semifinals before 29,633 at the Carrier Dome.
The Terps (29-4), who achieved a single-season school record for victories, will face second-seeded Connecticut tomorrow in the regional final, with the winner advancing to next week's national semifinals in Atlanta. Maryland beat the Huskies, 77-65, to win the BB&T Classic in early December.
"It was a great effort. We just didn't execute. We made some bad plays, but we knew what we were doing," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You know what's good about this team? It didn't take away from our defensive effort. It was a defensive game. As long as we kept playing good defense, we knew we had a chance to win the game. We turned the ball over, the shots weren't falling, but we got the ball inside in the second half."
Maryland clinched the victory over the fourth-seeded Wildcats (22-10) by making 21 of 24 free throws, including 14 of 15 attempts in the second half. The Terps eliminated the Wildcats by putting together a game-closing 12-5 run, after Kentucky had closed to 66-63 with 5:05 left.
Maryland also did it with scoring balance. Senior guard Juan Dixon, who got the Terps rolling early, led the way with 19 points. Senior center Lonny Baxter had 16 points, including 14 in the second half. Sophomore power forward Chris Wilcox had 15 points, and senior forward Byron Mouton complemented a superb defensive job on Kentucky forward Tayshaun Prince by scoring 14 points.
"Kentucky is a great team. They play in one of the best conferences in the country, and they came out with a lot of fight tonight. But I think we wanted it just a little more," Dixon said. "We had some scoring balance. Our big guys won the game for us in the second half. And we played hard defensively."
The Terps showed their resourcefulness by winning on a night when Blake was off his game. That prompted backup point guard Drew Nicholas to give Maryland another first-rate effort off the bench with eight points, five assists and two turnovers in 20 minutes.
"I played like crap," said Blake, who missed seven of nine shots, committed four turnovers, missed the front end of a late one-and-one opportunity and was riding the bench at game's end. "I was short on passes, I was losing the ball, I missed some easy shots. I'm upset with the way I played, but I'm happy we got the win. I'm not going to play that badly again."
Prince, a senior, led Kentucky with 17 points, 24 fewer than he scored in a second-round victory over Tulsa. After going 19-for-35 from the field in the first two tournament games, he shot 6-for-16 against the Terrapins.
He wasn't the only Kentucky player to struggle.
"We didn't take advantage of opportunities," said Wildcats coach Tubby Smith, who also got 15 points from Keith Bogans. "We turned it over two or three times on fast breaks and then you see our guys start to doubt themselves."
The Wildcats took a 15-3 shot from Maryland in the first half and trailed by as many as seven points, but Kentucky showed its pedigree and heart by coming after the Terps from the outset of the second half.
Kentucky cut Maryland's 39-33 lead to 41-40 with 17:41 left on a layup by Bogans, who immediately got involved in the offense after drawing two fouls and playing 12 minutes in the opening half.
Baxter and Wilcox combined to make four free throws to give Maryland a 45-40 cushion with 17 minutes left, but Bogans promptly answered with a 12-footer, and Prince followed with a three-pointer from the left corner to tie the game at 45 with 16:06 remaining.
Nicholas gave the Terps a 56-53 edge by hitting a three from the top of the key. Wilcox made it 58-53 with an 8-foot baseline jumper with 9:27 left. That started a stretch during which the Terps scored against Kentucky's 2-3 zone on six consecutive possessions.
While backup forward Marquis Estill was personally keeping the Wildcats on Maryland's heels - he scored 10 of 14 Kentucky points during the first 15 minutes of the second half - the Terps stayed ahead with balance. Baxter made a 6-foot bank shot. Wilcox canned a short baseline jumper. Mouton turned an offensive rebound into a layup to give the Terps a 64-57 lead with 7:07 left. Another layup by Baxter made it 66-59 with 6:42 to go.
The Wildcats sliced the lead to 66-63 two minutes later. A runner by Prince and two free throws by Estill did the job. But Maryland continued to pound the ball inside, where Wilcox and Baxter continued to go to the line. They combined on four free throws to put the Terps in front 70-63 with 3:31 to go.
Maryland looked anxious in the early going. The Terps took numerous questionable shots, especially among their guards, and veered away from the extra-pass philosophy that has governed their play all season. Dixon rushed some shots early, and Blake seemed conflicted as to whether he wanted to be a scorer or a playmaker.
That did not stop the Terps from playing enough defense and cranking up their fast break enough to take a six-point halftime lead. Shooting 46.7 percent from the field did not hurt, either.
"I was impressed with their composure down the stretch and making their free throws," Kentucky coach Smith said. "It's a sign of a poised, mature, veteran team."