Making tournament nice parting gift for Terps' Washington

With starting role, health, senior loves NCAA chance

College Basketball

March 21, 2004|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Ask Crystal Washington about her last trip to the NCAA women's basketball tournament with Maryland, and the list of memories she provides is short.

Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., was packed for the 2001 game. Colorado State shot 60 percent from three-point range to down the Terps, 83-69. And Washington, then a freshman out of Forestville's Bishop McNamara, mostly remembers sitting on the bench.

"I'm actually going to play this time," said Washington, who has averaged 8.0 points and 5.2 rebounds and started every game this season for the 17-12 Terps.

Three years later, expect better memories for the 6-foot-2 forward as Maryland tries to win its first NCAA tournament game since 1992, playing Miami (22-6) at 7 tonight in a first-round game in Baton Rouge, La.

Not only will she be savoring her role as a starter on a team that has exceeded expectations, she also will have overcome something more.

Graves' Disease, a thyroid condition that led to an irregular heartbeat in her case, almost short-circuited Washington's career last season. The condition runs in her family - it actually was diagnosed when she was in third grade - and was in remission just before she went into high school, before recurring in a mild form when she entered college.

But the condition reached a severe level just before her junior year. During workout sessions, it was common for her heart rate to increase from 40 beats per minute to 180 and then back to 40 during the beginning, middle and end of a sprint.

"You would think I was tired or exhausted, but it was my heartbeat dropping," said Washington, who also experienced difficulty getting to sleep and waking up, and found herself inexplicably bursting into tears during practices.

And Washington's troubles came just as she was trying to impress the new coaching staff of Brenda Frese, who replaced Chris Weller earlier that year. The hope was that the Terps might have a respectable front line with Washington and Delvona Oliver, who was to join the team at the semester break.

"We didn't know whether she was just out of shape, and didn't know whether she didn't want to put forth the effort," Frese said. "Once the exams were given, it made a lot more sense down the stretch."

At the behest of her mother, Washington had tests, and when it was confirmed that the condition was the cause of her problems, doctors put her on medication and told her not to work out until her thyroid hormone levels dropped.

Because Washington had played too many games to redshirt before her condition was rediscovered, she continued her season, but she wasn't fully cleared until just before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Her performance in that tournament against Clemson - eight points and eight rebounds - was an indication of what she was capable of. And after a strong summer of workouts, she was the favorite of teammates to become the surprise player of the season.

"She was one of the top players everyone put on the list," said Oliver, her roommate. "We thought she was going to shock all of us, and she's definitely come a long way."

Washington's steady performance has helped to counter the perception that the Terps are simply about freshman guards Kalika France and Shay Doron, especially since France and Doron are the team's leading scorers.

"They are option No. 1 and option No. 2, so we have to be able to take away options 1 and 2," said Miami coach Ferne Labati.

With that in mind, Frese said Maryland's chances of advancing to a probable matchup with site host Louisiana State lies in the play of Oliver and Washington, who entered this season without a start in her career.

"There have been a couple of games where she had double doubles," Frese said. "We couldn't have thought that possible a year ago. And overall, there's the amount of minutes that she's given us and the consistency she's given compared to a year ago."

And Washington has had something to convey to her younger teammates about the NCAAs. The urgency of the tournament - win or go home - only becomes more acute for a senior.

"I know this is my last chance," she said. "I'm just trying to play each game like it's my last, because it could be."

Terps women tonight

NCAA tournament first round: Maryland (17-12) vs. Miami (Fla.) (22-6) in West Regional

Seeds: Maryland, No. 12; Miami, No. 5.

Site: Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge, La.

Time: 7

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