As tests come, Terps hope lessons pay off

NCAA bid for women could get boost with win over FSU in ACC tourney

March 06, 2004|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - As Maryland's women's basketball team heads into this weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament as the fourth seed, an essay on "what I did over my basketball season" might be in order to explain it.

The Terps (16-11) might describe how they absorbed lessons on the way to a tie with N.C. State for third place at 8-8 in the ACC. They learned how to finish games, how to come back, how to handle criticism and how to let others contribute, not to mention rebounding and taking care of the ball.

For example, Maryland did a great job of coming back from a eight-point halftime deficit on Feb .15 against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Lesson learned. On the way to a crucial road victory in that same game, the team lost a six-point lead. Another lesson learned.

Two weeks later against Clemson, the Terps showed their growth. Playing a Tigers team on its Senior Night, Maryland fell behind early, only to make a 19-4 run toward the end of the first half. The Terps went on to cruise to an 80-69 win.

"We were 4-12 [last season]," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "To get four more wins in this conference, it says a lot about them as a group."

Doing so has the team on the brink of an NCAA appearance, which would be only the third in the past 11 years. Chances would improve with a win over Florida State (14-13) tonight.

In any case, a trip to the National Invitation Tournament would be an improvement for a team that had combined for 23 wins during the previous two seasons.

This week's practices have been conducted with concern for keeping players' legs fresh. Senior forward Delvona Oliver spoke of eating, sleeping and studying Florida State. Oliver doesn't remember anyone minding much last year about Clemson, the opponent in the play-in game. Because they were going to get plenty of rest, they weren't worried too much about tiring their shanks, either.

"I just wanted to get it over with," Oliver said. "Last year, we went down there as an eight seed. To go down as a four, it's a feeling that I can't describe."

Heading into this season, the first lesson discovered was how little respect the team received. Maryland last year went 10-18, lost its best player, Renneika Razor, and was expected to lean heavily on a pair of freshman guards, Shay Doron and Kalika France.

It wasn't surprising to see an eighth-place prediction for the Terps in Frese's second year as coach. With a highly touted recruiting class, the program was supposed to blossom next season, which didn't sit well with the current team.

"That's something that we're still clinging to - that underdog role," Frese said. "We still have a chip on our shoulder."

One area in which the team was held in low regard was the frontcourt. Oliver, a junior-college transfer who started playing for Maryland in the middle of last year, showed some glimpses of inside-outside talent but was a relative unknown. Meanwhile, Crystal Washington hadn't shown much during her previous three years while suffering from Graves' disease.

The question of whether the two could pull their own weight hovered over any aspirations, and it didn't please Oliver.

"Man, to be on a team and people are overlooking you," she said, "that hurts."

Oliver and Washington have given the Terps the assurance that they'll get something up front. Oliver averaged 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds, while Washington averaged 7.8 points and 5.1 rebounds.

Washington, who has started every game this season, found her performance especially gratifying. "This year, I can say that I'm contributing on the floor," she said, "whereas in the past, I was the one who kept the energy high on the bench."

At this stage, Doron and France seem to have delivered on the promise attached to the high school All-Americans. Doron (averaging 12.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists) was named third-team All-ACC earlier this week, and France (12.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.4 apg) was honorable mention; both made the all-freshman team.

With the improvement of returning players like Oliver, Washington, forward Chrissy Fisher, and guards Anesia Smith and Vicki Brick, the Terps seem like a completely different team, even though many of the parts are the same, built through missed summer vacations and extra workouts.

Those are things that don't get calculated when making predictions in November, but ones Maryland sees paying off.

"I think they missed the heart of this team," Smith said of the doubters. "The blood, sweat and tears. That's what you see now."

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