WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- On Jan. 20, the Maryland women's basketball team stood at the summit of the sport, and an invitation to the Final Four in Los Angeles seemed nearly engraved.
And even after two months of sloppy, inconsistent play that pushed them from the top, the eighth-ranked Terps still had a chance, especially after the top seed in the Mideast Regional, Tennessee, was knocked off Thursday.
But the same mental lapses that sent Maryland plunging from the top of the rankings during the past two months sent the second-seeded Terps home, as fourth-seeded Western Kentucky won, 75-70, to advance to the Final Four.
"I've been reading this book, 'Danger in the Comfort Zone,' " said Maryland coach Chris Weller. "It has some interesting theories about entitlement. I think we know we've had a good season, but that doesn't entitle you to anything."
The Terps' failure to get timely rebounds or make clutch free throws didn't entitle them to claim the Mideast Regional championship.
Maryland (25-6) outshot the Hilltoppers, 48 percent to 46 percent, went to the foul line 10 more times and out-rebounded the Hilltoppers 37-32.
But the Terps scored five points in the last five minutes of the game, were out-rebounded at the offensive end 13-11 and committed costly turnovers.
The Hilltoppers (26-7), who spotted Maryland an 11-point first-half lead two nights after coming back from a 10-point second-half deficit to Tennessee, did all the right things when they had to.
"We believed in each other and believed in the system," said Western Kentucky coach Paul Sanderford. "The team never thought that we weren't going to win."
By contrast, the Terps, who had excelled down the stretch in tournament wins over Toledo and Purdue, collapsed and were unable to find their composure.
"We were outworked today," said Weller. "Western Kentucky just played harder than we did."
In a game of spurts, Western Kentucky battled the Terps through the second half.
After Renee Westmoreland hit a three-pointer with 7:37 left to give the Hilltoppers a 63-62 lead, Maryland's Limor Mizrachi hit a three-pointer from the right side to give the Terps a 65-63 lead with 5:43 left.
But Kim Pehlke, tournament Most Valuable Player, who had a team-high 17 points, hit a three-pointer to give the Hilltoppers a 66-65 lead.
Center Paulette Monroe, one of three Western Kentucky players with four fouls, hit a short jumper inside with 4:38 left for a three-point lead.
Malissa Boles made two foul shots with 3:24 left and Dafne Lee (Walbrook), playing her last game as a Terp, made one of two foul shots with 2:57 left to tie the score at 68.
However, Liesa Lang got a put-back with 1:55 left to give Western Kentucky a 70-68 lead.
The teams traded missed possessions. Then, with about 40 seconds left, Mizrachi missed an open three-point try. Westmoreland was fouled and made two foul shots.
On the ensuing possession, Mizrachi, while trying to bring the ball up, was trapped in the backcourt, picked up her dribble and threw away a long pass that effectively took Maryland out of the game.
"I guess we were surprised," said Weller. "We know that they do that, but we didn't talk about it in the huddle. Limor picked it [the dribble] up at the worst time and threw it to the worst spot you could throw it."
In the first 10 minutes of the first half, the Terps played as well as they have since they knocked off Virginia, 67-65, in Charlottesville to claim the No. 1 ranking, hitting 12 of their first 17 shots.
Boles opened the scoring with a layup and a 15-footer. A 16-footer from Michele Andrew at the top of the key and a short jumper from Jessie Hicks helped give the Terps an 8-2 lead.
The Hilltoppers stayed relatively close, on the strength of a three-pointer from Pehlke, who had 14 first-half points, and a short jumper from Trina Wilson inside the paint.
From there, Hicks began to do damage inside, converting two straight three-point plays to give Maryland a 20-14 lead with 13:44 left.
The Terps continued to dominate inside, as Hicks and Lee converted in the lane. When reserve Katrina Colleton made a 15-footer with 10:19 left, Maryland had a 30-19 lead and seemed poised to deliver a knockout blow.
But Hicks had picked up her second foul 30 seconds earlier, and in keeping with a long-standing policy by Weller, she sat for the rest of the half.
"If I have a player who gets two fouls in the first half, I'll do my best to keep her on the bench to give her some freedom in the second half," Weller said.
Hicks, who had 11 first-half points, was missed, and the Hilltoppers took advantage.
With no one to clog the middle, Pehlke drove in for two layups and hit a 16-footer from the right side to pull the Hilltoppers within 37-29.
The Terps went cold, hitting just four of 12 shots in the last 10 minutes of the half, and failing to make a field goal in the last four minutes.
Meanwhile, Pehlke continued to score, hitting a three-pointer and two foul shots to draw the Hilltoppers within 44-42 at halftime.