Terps women's ensemble is a hit

January 31, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- Is this a strange team or what?

The point guard spent last year keeping the Israeli army fit, donning a gas mask every time the sirens signaled incoming Scud missiles from Iraq.

The backup power forward, who last season was the conference's top rookie, has spent more time in the coach's doghouse this season than Snoopy, but says you couldn't get her to leave if you paid her.

There's the Finnish player who sets the fashion tone with different headbands, the backup guard who makes crowd-pleasing reverse layups and the Baltimorean who can spout coach-pleasing cliches about work habits and family.

Welcome to the top-ranked Maryland women's basketball team.

No one is getting more than 25 minutes of playing time per game. No one is scoring more than 14 points a game. No one is averaging more than seven rebounds.

But the Terps -- who remain atop the polls for a second straight week, with 67 of 70 first-place votes -- say they are a bunch of JTC happy campers who are receiving admiration and acclaim from a campus that had long neglected them.

"This is something that I've always dreamed about, playing on a No. 1 team," said junior guard/forward Malissa Boles. "This is fun."

"We've joked about it a little bit," said coach Chris Weller. "I let them have two days of fun and joking. But now, it's time for a reality check."

The next reality check comes tomorrow afternoon at Cole Field House, when Maryland (17-1, 7-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) plays host to North Carolina State (11-7, 2-5). A victory would give the Terps their best start since the 1975-76 season, when they won 22 of their first 23 games.

Start of something big

That the Terps are in this position comes as a surprise to many. The team is markedly different from last season's, though nine players remain from that 17-13 team, which finished second in the ACC and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Holy Cross.

"We're a little bit further along than most people thought, including me," said Weller.

But Weller -- who has 345 victories, eight ACC championships and three Final Four appearances in 17 years at Maryland -- helped raise interest during the preseason when, in an uncharacteristic statement, she said this year's team could be the best she'd ever coached.

The first clear indication that the Terps might live up to Weller's expectations came in early December, when they demolished then-seventh-ranked Penn State, 85-58, in State College, Pa.

From there, Maryland continued to move up the rankings from its preseason No. 15 slot. A 69-60 loss to then-18th-ranked Auburn at the end of December is the Terps' only loss.

Quality time

Weller may be doing her best job of coaching this season. She has worked the usual 10-player rotation to near perfection, substituting power and quickness interchangeably.

Just as important, Weller has done an impressive job of convincing her players that reduced minutes don't necessarily mean a lack of quality time.

Take Dafne Lee, for instance. Lee, a 5-foot-11 senior guard/forward from Walbrook High, and 6-foot reserve forward Sue Panek are the only two players left from the 1988-89 season -- the last time Maryland went to the Final Four -- on a squad that featured All-Americans Vicky Bullett and Deanna Tate.

Lee is averaging two fewer points and eight fewer minutes than last season, yet she's happy.

"That year [1988-89], we only had eight players on that team," said Lee. "We can go to just about everybody this year. Anyone can score. The same offenses are being used, but there wasn't this much talent. There's a lot of unseen talent here and a lot of potential."

Limor Mizrachi, a 5-7 sophomore guard from Givataim, Israel, has been one of the biggest stories of the season. She is averaging 8.1 points and is shooting 20-for-39 from the three-point line, a 51 percent clip that ranks sixth nationally.

Her calm demeanor has kept the Terps in two difficult games -- the 67-65 win over Virginia in Charlottesville to claim No. 1 and the Clemson game, in which she scored 12 of Maryland's last 14 points to pull out the win.

But considering where she's been, coolness under fire is nothing new. Mizrachi was a fitness instructor for the Israeli army last year and kept the gas masks as well as the weights in her hands while her area was being shelled by the Iraqi army during the Persian Gulf conflict.

"It was unpleasant, but with everything bad comes good," said Mizrachi, in halting English. "To make your life more tough, you need things like that."

Sitting, but happy

Bonnie Rimkus, a 6-4 center from Pittsburgh, has had some tough times on the court this year. She was second on the team in scoring and rebounding last season, averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds. This season, she fell out of favor with Weller, who suspended her briefly for inconsistent practice habits.

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