Atlanta It couldn't happen again. It almost happened again. Juan Dixon wouldn't let it happen again.
With its All-American guard leading the way, Maryland reached the national championship game for the first time with a 97-88 victory over Kansas on Saturday night.
Last season the Terrapins lost a 22-point lead to Duke in its first Final Four appearance. This time, Maryland blew almost all of a 20-point lead, but made sure there was enough left to win the matchup of No. 1 seeds.
"I've been saying the whole week that if we ever got in that position again - when we were up 22 points - we were going to find a way to pull the game out. We did," Dixon said. "It's just our experience. We grew a lot over the last year or so. So hopefully we'll go out there and get one more."
Dixon hit a baseline jumper with 1:14 to play, putting Maryland ahead 89-82 after Kansas cut the lead to five. The Jayhawks still weren't done and neither was Dixon, who finished with 33 points.
Kansas hit two 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds. After the first, Dixon made two free throws to make it 92-85. After the second, Kansas called a timeout it didn't have and Dixon made one of two free throws on the technical to make it 93-88 with 19 seconds left. That was as close as the Jayhawks would get.
"It was a strange feeling. When the buzzer went off we were playing for the championship," coach Gary Williams said.
Nick Collison, who led Kansas with 21 points and 10 rebounds, called Dixon a great player.
"Dixon seemed to step up after they struggled a bit. He made two or three that were backbreakers," Collison said.
Maryland (31-4) will play Indiana for the national championship on Monday night. The fifth-seeded Hoosiers (25-11) advanced with a 73-64 victory over second-seeded Oklahoma.
"I just know, reading about them, seeing them play during the year, how tough they are, how driven they are this year," Williams said, referring to Indiana. "They seem to be on a mission. I think they had a lot of courage to play as hard as they did."
Chris Wilcox added 18 points and nine rebounds for Maryland and Steve Blake had eight points and 11 assists.
Now Williams has a chance at his national championship and the Terrapins have an opportunity to erase last season's nightmare. Many of the players said this week they had still not gotten over the 95-84 loss to Duke, which went on to win the title in Minneapolis.
"I don't think I'll forget last year until we finally win a national championship," Maryland center Lonny Baxter said. "That's what the goal was after that game last year. We've been shooting for it all year and we plan to Monday night."
Williams, who once played for Maryland, celebrated the win with a chest bump with Wilcox.
"This team has never gone away in any tough situation," Williams said. "We've gotten beat but teams have really had to make a great effort to get us."
All-American forward Drew Gooden finished with 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting and had nine rebounds for Kansas, which won 20 of its last 22 games.
Things were far from perfect at the start for Maryland, as Kansas (33-4) jumped to a 13-2 lead inside the opening four minutes. Rallying in the first half seemed to fit the Terrapins much better than holding a big lead did a year ago.
Even though Baxter was limited to three minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, Maryland got back in it behind Dixon, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year who finished the first half with 19 points.
The Terrapins went up 44-37 at halftime and Kansas, despite getting in serious foul trouble of its own, was able to stay within striking distance.
Jeff Boschee's 3-pointer with 12:08 to play had the Jayhawks within 60-55. The Terrapins then went on a 10-0 run, the last five points coming from Holden, and it was 70-55 with 10:08 left.
The Terps, who have won 18 of 19, went up by as many as 20 points, 83-63 on a 3 by Dixon with 6:04 to play.
Kansas, which was in the Final Four for the first time since 1993, made it exciting with the late run, but coach Roy Williams will again have to wait at least one more season for his first national championship.
"We made some mistakes, we missed some shots and all of a sudden it was an 18-point lead," Roy Williams said. "And then I was as proud of this team as any I've had. We couldn't get over the hump. Juan Dixon was sensational.
"A lot of times a lot of guys make fun of me this time of year because I'm crying, but I'm right (to cry) because these kids mean something to me. God, I enjoyed this year. I'm sad I'm not going to get to coach them again. Not playing again on Monday night doesn't hurt one iota for Roy Williams or his record, just that I won't get to coach them in a championship game."
Boschee, who finished 5-for-13 from 3-point range and had 17 points, got the Jayhawks within five points for the first time with a 3 with 2:04 left, making it 87-82.
After Dixon's big shot from the baseline and one free throw from Blake, Boschee made it 90-85 with his last 3 with 27 seconds to play.
Gooden's 3-pointer made it 92-88 with 19 seconds left, but some of the Kansas players signaled for a timeout when the ball went through. It may not have been as dramatic as when Chris Webber made the same mistake for Michigan against North Carolina in the 1993 championship game, but it cost the Jayhawks dearly.
Dixon made the one free throw on the technical and Byron Mouton added two on the ensuing possession. Drew Nicholas capped the scoring with two free throws with .1 seconds left.
The game provided the expected offense. Kansas came in leading the nation at 91 points per game and Maryland was a couple of spots behind at 85.3.
Dixon also provided what he has throughout the tournament for the Terrapins, scoring at least 27 points for the fourth time in five games.
Looking ahead to playing Indiana, he said: "It will be a tough game. This is our year, and hopefully we come ready Monday night."