ANAHEIM, Calif. —Picture the coach as a jockey, sitting atop a feisty thoroughbred saving its best kick for the homestretch.
Over 23 seasons in his profession, Maryland Terrapins coach Gary Williams has never had a colt with this much left in the tank this late in the game. This horse has taken Williams places he has never been.
On Saturday at Arrowhead Pond, Williams learned a little more about his unique collection of players, who pushed the Terps into the first Final Four in school history by dominating a top-seeded Stanford team that had lost twice in its previous 33 games.
And the reward for earning the West Regional championship with an 87-73 victory could not be more fitting. Maryland and top-ranked Duke, which already have played three of the season's more compelling games, will renew their rivalry in the national semifinals at the Metrodome in Minneapolis on Saturday. Maryland is 1-2 against the Blue Devils.
``You don't get to the Final Four without having special players. I've got a special group,'' Williams said. ``It's funny. Some of these guys weren't considered great players coming out of high school. They were criticized this year more than any other team I've ever coached.
``You learn about a team sometimes more when they lose. Wins sometimes create false signs that everything is OK. Obviously, we weren't OK before. I didn't know what to expect when we went through the tough times. The big thing is to come back. Now, you have to ride the team the way they are.''
The Terps (25-10), who have reached 25 victories for the third straight season, are playing fast, loose, dangerous basketball. They no longer resemble the pressing, tentative group that spent three midseason weeks licking its wounds during a 1-5 streak, starting with a shocking, overtime loss at home to Duke two months ago.
The scars Maryland collected, culminating with the season's low point on Feb. 14, when the Terps were booed at Cole Field House after losing to Atlantic Coast Conference bottom feeder Florida State, have added a layer of toughness that had been missing as Maryland's record fell to 15-9.
Maryland dispatched Stanford to win its 10th game in 11 tries _ and its seventh in the past eight against ranked opponents _ with surprising ease because the Terps controlled the tempo with superior depth and hot shooters and were unafraid to make mistakes.
``It's scary. We can be considered one of the great teams in the country. That's a great crown to hold, and I think the thought of that will take us pretty far,'' said senior reserve forward LaRon Cephas.
``We deserve to be cocky, but keep it to a limit. Display it on the floor, don't conduct yourself in a bad manner. I'm proud of these guys. We joke around a lot. We're having so much fun. But we're a very focused team with a lot of talent and a lot of depth.''
As if Stanford coach Mike Montgomery doesn't know it. He watched the Terps, starting with a dominant Lonny Baxter and a rejuvenated Terence Morris, carve up and wear down the Cardinal front court of center Jason Collins and forwards Jarron Collins and Ryan Mendez with a wave of big men who were quicker in the post.
Baxter, who earned the regional's Most Outstanding Player award by scoring 50 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in two games here, destroyed Stanford with a game-high 24 points. Morris, bouncing back from his 1-for-11 shooting flop in the semfinals against Georgetown, scored the game's first three points and attacked the boards with a game-high 10 rebounds.
Sophomore backup Tahj Holden, who scored 24 points over two games at the Pond, hit three three-pointers and burned Stanford for 14 points. Center Mike Mardesich and forward Chris Wilcox joined the fun to keep bodies on the Cardinal down low.
``Maryland plays five big guys, and they don't care if they get in foul trouble,'' Montgomery said. ``Maryland disrupted our offense. Every time we made a play, they had an answer.''
The Terps seemingly canceled out every mistake with a huge play, as Stanford surrendered a season-high 87 points.
Point guard Steve Blake made some poor decisions during a turnover-laden first half, but responded with three three-pointers and finished with 13 points and seven assists. His backup, Drew Nicholas, made tremendous plays at the end of each first half at the Pond. He was mainly responsible for the 15-6 run that concluded the first half on Saturday and sent the Terps into the locker room with a 42-32 lead and all of the momentum they would need to finish off the Cardinal.
Shooting guard Juan Dixon left Ryan Mendez open for a series of three-pointers that kept Stanford within striking distance, but Dixon doused any comeback hopes by scoring 10 of his 17 in the game's final 15 minutes. Byron Mouton struggled with foul trouble and had his hands full trying to cover All-America guard Casey Jacobsen, but Danny Miller put the clamps on him.
``Stanford was big and physical, and they've got good shooters, but I think we wanted this a little more,'' said Dixon, who clutched the game ball while sitting in the locker room. ``I wanted the ball down the stretch. We're enjoying the game. It's all about loving the game. It's about enjoying every opportunity we have. We're loose.''
Not to mention ready and waiting for the Blue Devils, who edged the Terps, 84-82, in their last meeting, in the ACC tournament semifinals.
``I love playing against them,'' Dixon said. ``Look at the pattern. We lost (open bracket)Jan. 27(close bracket), we won (open bracket)Feb. 27(close bracket), we lost (open bracket)March 10(close bracket). Now, it's time to play again. I'm never going to forget this.''
Neither is Miller.
``This is one of the great times you have playing basketball. This is what you play for, this is why you put in time working in the summer to better yourself as a player, to get to this situation,'' said Miller, who can't wait to face Duke again.
``Right now, we're just riding it. We've still got more things to come. It will be great to see them again. We're both great teams. We're coming to win.''