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Los Angeles Lakers Continued to Dominate NBA in 2002 - 2002-12-21

The Los Angeles Lakers continued their dominance of the National Basketball Association but the U.S. men's national team failed to live up to expectations at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland finally captured the men's college basketball championship for the first time while the University of Connecticut dominated women's hoops.

The Los Angeles Lakers were two time defending champions and were looking for their third title in three years when they took on the New Jersey Nets in June. By the end of the best-of-seven games finals, the Lakers had swept aside New Jersey, knocking out the Nets in four games.

Lakers' star center Shaquille O'Neal averaged more than 36 points per game in the finals while teammate Kobe Bryant poured in nearly 27 points per game. The Lakers juggernaut seemed unstoppable, and O'Neal was voted the finals Most Valuable Player for the third time in a row. After the final game, O'Neal said that from now on he is focused on winning championships. "You know it was tough, but my teammates, they looked for me," he said. "[Coach] Phil [Jackson] stayed on me [encouraged me], my father stayed on me, my mother stayed on me. So I am just happy."

O'Neal had missed 15 games during the regular season with toe, ankle and wrist injuries, and underwent surgery in September to repair the toe injury.

The finals were almost an anticlimax after the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. The Kings were the only team in the post-season to seriously challenge the Lakers, taking the defending champions to seven games before losing, four games to three. Robert Horry dealt a huge blow to Sacramento's hopes in game four with a three-point basket as time expired that gave the Lakers a 100-99 win. Instead of a 3-1 lead for Sacramento, the series was tied at two games apiece. And from there, the Lakers seemed unstoppable.

Horry says making the shot was second only to winning the championship in his memories of the season. "You know I do not have any memorabilia for the finals, but I do have one thing - me making the shot, me running down the court, and you have [pro wrestler] The Rock from Smackdown in the background [in the crowd]," he said. "I mean everything was wonderful for that shot."

The Lakers' triumph nearly overshadowed the resurrection of the New Jersey Nets. From a team that finished with the sixth-worst record in the league (at 26-56) the previous season, the Nets - led by Jason Kidd and rookie Richard Jefferson - took the NBA's Eastern Conference championship. Kidd was widely thought to be a lock for the regular season Most Valuable Player Award, but the prize went to San Antonio's Tim Duncan.

Whether the Lakers can capture another championship this season will likely depend on the health of Shaquille O'Neal. When he's been out of the line-up injured, the Lakers have struggled, and they have languished near the bottom of the standings.

Meanwhile in the college ranks, the University of Maryland overcame its archrival Duke in the regular season and Indiana in the final, in winning the NCAA title for the first time. Senior guard Juan Dixon and forward Lonny Baxter led Maryland with Dixon scoring 18 points and Baxter adding another 15 in the title game. Dixon, whose heroin-addicted parents died from AIDS before he was 18, said that realizing his dream of a national championship was overwhelming. "I grew up a lot in college," he said. "I've grown so much and I developed as a person and as a basketball player. It's a great feeling. I feel like I am dreaming right now, because I am part of a national championship team and a lot of people back home counted me out and did not give me a chance. And I went out and got better each year and led my team to a national championship, so it's a great feeling."

The win was also a vindication for Maryland Coach Gary Williams, who said that his main goal was not only to win games, but to develop his players into solid young men. "When I came here 13 years ago, my goal was to make the basketball program as good as it could be, but also to make it a part of the University just like the other schools in the University," said Gary Williams. "We want to be a part that shows class to the University, not just in terms of wins and losses. I mean you look at these people playing here - we have a lot of class, believe me."

While Maryland's dream of capturing the college title came true, there was little question all season long which team was favored to win the women's title - Connecticut.

The Huskies - led by senior Sue Bird, junior Diana Taurasi and others - did not lose a single game all season, going 39-0 and winning their second title in four years. Even Tennessee Coach Pat Summit came into the Huskies locker room to congratulate them after her team lost to Connecticut in the national semifinal, 79-56.

Connecticut's performance was in stark contrast to the U.S. men's national basketball team, which embarrassed itself in front of home fans at the World Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The American squad - made up of NBA players but lacking some of its previous firepower - finished sixth, the worst performance by a U.S. team ever in international play. Yugoslavia retained its World Championship by defeating Argentina, in overtime, 84-77.