Dipping a toe in the big time isn't plunge Frese, Yow wanted

February 14, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

COLLEGE PARK - In hindsight, it might have been a bit much to ask. To have the largest crowd in ACC women's basketball history, to be on ESPN2, to have the governor on hand, to have the No. 3-ranked team in the country in town, to have buzz surrounding the program that it hasn't had in years - and to win the game. Maryland might have been reaching beyond its grasp yesterday.

Could be. Just don't tell that to Brenda Frese or Debbie Yow.

Maryland didn't win the game, and thus couldn't complete the weekend sweep of Duke at Comcast Center. Everything else fell into place, but neither woman was necessarily satisfied with "everything else." Happy, yes, but not satisfied.

"Sure," Frese, the Maryland head coach, said in a Comcast hallway after the Blue Devils defeated her young Terps, 60-49, "you'd like to have your cake and eat it, too. You do have to put it in perspective. We're young, and this was an experience that can make them stronger.

"But yes, we think we can be on the level of a Connecticut or a Tennessee. We're right there. We can be a team that goes deep into the tournament, that talks about national titles, that has a national profile."

So this situation - full house, national TV, big-time game - isn't going to be a one-time thing?

"No," she said. "That's why I came here."

Yow, Maryland's athletic director, is a believer as well. "I want to be that AD [who has to] figure out how to get from the men's NCAA games to the women's NCAA games, back and forth," she said at halftime yesterday. That, of course, would be the Connecticut model, except she also wants BCS bowl trips on her itinerary as well.

"Can we be very good in football, men's basketball and women's basketball?" Yow asked. "We have three great coaches. Why shouldn't we think we can? Why not?"

The other two coaches were among the local celebrities in attendance yesterday to support Frese. Gary Williams walked in some 13 hours after having departed the madness in the building after the men's win over Duke. Ralph Friedgen made it to Comcast yesterday after staying home sick from the men's game. They were joined by, among others, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Tom McMillen, Walt Williams, LaMont Jordan and current Maryland athletes scattered about.

More important, traffic on U.S. 1 and Greenbelt Road was backed up until after tip-off. With three minutes left in the first half, word came of the record being blown away - 17,243, nearly a sellout and comfortably ahead of the 1992 mark set at Cole Field House.

It was a moment worth celebrating, except for two not-so-minor factors. For one, the Terps were losing 22-19 at the time, loosening the bolts on the basket supports with their shots. Yow, sitting behind the basket, was alternately proud of the news of the attendance and agitated (like the coach she once was) over the game itself. As she talked at halftime about the milestone crowd, she kept inserting observations like, "We've got to start shooting better."

As significant as the attendance was, actually beating Duke - a team that, like the men in the pre-Williams days, has been where Maryland wants to get - would have packed so much more of a punch. To put Maryland truly on the national radar, it needs a signature win; with all due respect to the win over North Carolina last month, this would have been the one.

That win could still come in the postseason, but getting it yesterday - especially as a capper to the men's win in the wee hours Saturday - would have put the entire program on the lips of every college hoophead in America.

But all things in due time, on the big wins and on the makeup of the crowds. The Maryland people were thrilled to have sold this game all over the area and to have brought a swarm of girls with dreams of playing on this court into the building.

On the other hand, they recorded 701 student tickets sold, enough to pack one section across from the visiting bench rather than the entire lower bowl. There were probably about as many students still hung over on Route 1 from the night before.

Duplicating the atmosphere at the men's games - without the intervention of a sportsmanship committee or the local police, of course - is as lofty a goal as is entering the national elite. The seeds of that, though, were planted with the attendance of the heroes of the previous night; no one got a greater reception yesterday than Nik Caner-Medley, Chris McCray, Ekene Ibekwe and their teammates. Their stamp of approval was bigger than the others' combined.

"We're not cool yet," Yow said of the women's program. "That will be the hardest hurdle. We start getting a lot of people here, and it'll be cool. This will be the place everybody wants to be."

But Yow, Frese and the Maryland women's program can't have it all at once. At least not this time.

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