The 2002 Maryland Terrapins made it through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament unscathed after blowout wins of Siena and Wisconsin in "home" games at the then-MCI Arena in Washington.
But 18 years ago, things would get a lot tougher for the Terrapins on their way to the program's first national championship in men's basketball. On March 22, 2002, Maryland, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, had to play Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Things were about to get real.
In hindsight, a championship season seemed inevitable. The Terps had gone 15-1 in the ACC, they were 28-4 entering the Sweet 16 that year. The only losses were a neutral site game against Arizona at Madison Square Garden and games at Duke, at Oklahoma – who would join them at the Final 4 in Atlanta – and to North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
But just look at that Kentucky roster: Star senior Tayshaun Prince led the way. He was a four-year starter. He had played in an Elite Eight game before and it was his third time in the Sweet 16.
A year after the Maryland game Prince would become a breakout star in the NBA playoffs for the Detroit Pistons and was on his way to a 14-year NBA career. He was a key player on the Pistons' 2004 NBA championship team and the group that made it back to the Finals in 2005.
Meanwhile, a year after losing to Maryland in the Sweet 16, the young Wildcats would return virtually everyone else that next season, including local D.C. area kids Keith Bogans (DeMatha) and Cliff Hawkins (Potomac). Kentucky would rampage through the SEC (16-0) in 2002-03 and was 32-3 when it ran into a buzzsaw named Dwyane Wade in the 2003 Elite Eight. Wade put up a triple-double for Marquette with an absurd 29 points, 11 assists 11 rebounds plus four blocks in a performance that ranks as one of the greatest in NCAA postseason history.
THAT is what it took to knock out the Wildcats in the 2003 tournament. Maryland caught that group a year early in 2002, which was fortunate. If it seems like the Terps cruised to that long-awaited championship, just re-watch the Kentucky Sweet 16 game and see how close a thing it was.
The Terrapins fell behind 5-0 to start the game and 10-4 early. But the game featured six ties and seven lead changes. Maryland rallied to take the lead, but fell behind again 19-14 after a Prince 3-point basket with 11:40 to go in the half.
This game wasn't about Maryland's seniors, though. Juan Dixon had back-to-back 29-point games in the first two rounds in D.C. This time he had 19 and was held in check by Bogans for the most part.
The two big shots? Drew Nicholas, the unheralded junior guard, drilled a 3-pointer to put the Terps ahead for good 24-21. And he hit another with 9:54 to go that broke a 53-53 tie. Maryland had never led by more than seven points. The lead was still just 66-63 with 4:41 to go. It was 75-70 with 51 seconds left.
Maryland eventually won 78-68 on free throws down the stretch. But that score didn't remotely indicate how close a game it really was. And the Terrapins still had to face Caron Butler and UConn in the Elite Eight two days later at Syracuse. If the first two games were home blowouts, Maryland would earn its way to Atlanta for its second straight Final Four appearance.
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