SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Senior forward Byron Mouton seemed to be laughing and crying at the same time. Senior center Lonny Baxter looked exhausted, as a man should after carrying a team for extended periods of time. Senior guard Juan Dixon had just produced 39 incredible minutes filled with energy, heart and desire, and he sounded ready to take and make one more shot with the season hanging in the balance.
At so many points last night, the Maryland Terrapins appeared ripe for a fall in the NCAA tournament's East Regional championship game.
The Terps ran into foul trouble at several positions, took a seven-point halftime lead that would not last long, and seemed to be helpless in the face of the powerful play of Connecticut sophomore Caron Butler and the slashing athleticism of those Huskies guards.
But the Terps did what the great basketball teams do. They refused to waver, refused to stop believing they would play for one more weekend, refused to accept a premature end to the course they have plotted for a year. And veterans like Dixon and Baxter saw to it that Maryland would not be silenced.
In what had to be the most pulsating contest produced in this NCAA tournament so far, top-seeded Maryland rode the hulking shoulders of Baxter and the killer instinct of Dixon to its second consecutive Final Four appearance by overtaking a dogged Connecticut team in the final two minutes and closing out a 90-82 victory before 29,252 who got their money's worth and then some at the Carrier Dome.
The victory completes phase one of a yearlong mission. Maryland (30-4), which already has achieved the best record in school history and has won 30 games in a season for the first time, advanced as the No. 1 seed to the national semifinal round at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where on Saturday night the Terps will face Kansas, the Midwest Regional winner and also a top seed.
The winner will play either Oklahoma or Indiana on Monday night for the national championship.
"Just getting there is hard either way," junior point guard Steve Blake said of a return trip to the game's ultimate stage. "It's been a great year so far. We're not satisfied with getting there. We want to win the whole thing."
"This is too much fun. Nobody back home wanted me to come to the University of Maryland," said a beaming Mouton, who hails from Rayne, La., and elected to transfer from Tulane after two seasons, then sat out for a year in College Park before hitting the court as a Terp last season.
"Everybody wanted me to go to Kentucky or UConn because of all of their tradition. I went to the Final Four last year, won an ACC championship and am going back to the Final Four this year. Two-for-two, not bad at all. I'm a part of history."
Dixon and Baxter certainly created some history last night. Baxter, the shy, soft-spoken, 6-foot-8 senior who has been the foundation of Maryland's offense for three seasons, earned a regional Most Outstanding Player award for the second straight year by shredding the Huskies inside with a season-high 29 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
Dixon, the slender 6-3 guard from East Baltimore who has defied personal tragedy and the low expectations that greeted him when he arrived at Maryland nearly five years ago and already is the leading scorer in school history, left them roaring last night with 27 points and clutch moments that have long been his signature.
It was an epic struggle that produced 24 lead changes and 21 ties. It was also a night when the younger Huskies, coached by the wily Jim Calhoun - who engaged in an intriguing chess match with Williams of switching defenses and protecting foul-plagued players - pushed Maryland to the brink of defeat while riding the talent of Butler.
He scored 26 of his game-high 32 points in the second half, grabbed a team-high seven rebounds and looked like an underclassman about to leave early for the NBA.
But Dixon, with help from Baxter and a huge lift from Blake, who had struggled mightily in Friday's regional semifinal victory over Kentucky, made sure the Terps came out smiling. With Connecticut protecting a 77-74 lead, Dixon demanded the ball and demanded the chance to make victory happen.
And he delivered once again, by burying a three-point shot from the top of the key in the face of Huskies guard Taliek Brown to tie the score at 77 with 3:43 remaining. That fueled a sequence during which Maryland scored on its final eight possessions and showed its composure by hitting its last eight foul shots.
Dixon would make four free throws down the stretch. Baxter would score four points. And Blake would ice the game with a three-pointer with 25.4 seconds left. His lone field goal of the game put the Terps on top 86-80.
"I didn't want this to be my last game. I never showed that much emotion in my life," said Dixon, who pumped his fist and swung his arm in windmill-like fashion after sinking the earlier tying three. "This is the last time I get to go through this. There was no way this was going to be our last game."
"There had to be a way to win that game, and we found it," Williams said. "It's a credit to these guys, because it didn't look good, especially when UConn took the lead there. We never faltered on what we were trying to do. To watch [Dixon and Baxter] play, especially now, I don't think there's ever been a better class at the university."
Maryland showed its class this weekend. First, the Terps disposed of Kentucky, which won the 1998 title. Then, they stared down the Huskies, the 1999 winners. Now, it's on to Atlanta to make some history of their own.
"I knew we could make some plays. We're a great team, and we know how to make them," Baxter said. "Now we have to keep doing it for two more games."