UM takes root as a contender

Rise to No. 2 seed yields a new attitude

NCAA Women's Tournament


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The feeling is different.

Two years ago, the Maryland women's basketball team jumped off the bubble and barely squeaked its way into the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed. Last season, the Terps earned a No. 7 seed that some experts viewed as lofty for the Atlantic Coast Conference's sixth-place team in the regular-season standings.

But today, third-ranked Maryland enters a 2:30 p.m. first-round contest with Sacred Heart at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center as the No. 2 seed in the Albuquerque Regional. That validation of the program's meteoric rise has given birth to a new attitude among the players.

"It's all different," sophomore forward Laura Harper said yesterday. "You can just tell that a sense of urgency is there. We're not overlooking any team, but I think we're excited and ready to play."

The program's evolution from doormat to contender is not lost on Terps coach Brenda Frese, who has helped guide the team from records of 10-18 in 2002-03, to 18-13 in 2003-04, to 22-10 in 2004-05 to 28-4 this winter.

"Just three short years ago, we were truly a bubble team," she said. "Last year, we were a [No.] 7 seed, and this year, we're coming in as a [No.] 2 seed. We're extremely excited about it, and we really feel like the ACC schedule has prepared us for right now."

But the accolades and attention come with the additional baggage of expectations and pressure. A second-round exit in the NCAA tournament like in the past two seasons would be considered a huge disappointment for a Maryland squad some experts have picked to make the Final Four in Boston on April 2 and 4.

And if the upsets on the men's side - nine of the higher-seeded teams lost their first-round games - is any indication, nothing is guaranteed.

But that's what the Terps have come to expect, according to freshman point guard Kristi Toliver.

"I think we have a big target on our backs being a [No.] 2 seed and ranked third in the country," she said. "We've always gotten everybody's best game, and nothing's really changed."

It won't change today. Although the Pioneers hail from the lightly regarded Northeast Conference and lost, 84-40, to then-No. 7 Ohio State in December in their only meeting with a ranked opponent, Sacred Heart set a school record with 26 wins in 30 games and is riding a 10-game winning streak, which includes the school's first conference tournament crown.

Junior guard Amanda Pape leads the Pioneers in scoring (18 points per game) and steals (3.3) and is second in rebounding (7.4), and Sacred Heart averages 72.2 points per contest by forcing opponents to commit an average of 20.6 turnovers.

Pioneers coach Ed Swanson, whose wife, Marion, gave birth to the couple's first child, Connor John, on Tuesday, said that his team would not abandon its full-court press or its fast-break offense.

"We're going to stick with what got us here," said Swanson, whose teams have never finished lower than third in the NEC standings. "We can't go from being a run-and-gun team to a Princeton[-style] offense in four days. Those are things that we're not going to change all that much."

The feeling is mutual among the Maryland players, who will likely have junior guard Shay Doron (bruised right thigh) back in the starting lineup today. Doron said the team won't succumb to outside pressure.

"We have our own expectations and our own pressures that we put on ourselves," she said. "We're obviously a lot more confident this year going in, especially with the way we've been playing down the stretch. We're just bringing in a lot of confidence, and our youth gives us a lot of energy. We're excited to play."


Maryland (28-4) vs. Sacred Heart (26-4)

What -- NCAA women's tournament, Albuquerque Regional first-round game

When -- Today, 2:30 p.m.

Where -- Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, Pa.


Seeds -- Maryland, No. 2; Sacred Heart, No. 15

Key matchup -- The health of junior guard Shay Doron's bruised right thigh will be tested today by Sacred Heart junior guard Amanda Pape, who averaged 18 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.3 steals per game en route to being named the Northeast Conference Player of the Year. Doron, who averaged 14.1 points, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals, has the quickness and smarts to counter Pape's moves.

Outlook -- This is the Pioneers' first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Throw in the fact that teams from the NEC are 0-12 in the tournament, and the prospects aren't great. The Terps will likely feed the ball inside to sophomores Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper to exploit the Pioneers' lack of height in the paint. If the defense begins to collapse, look for Doron and freshmen Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver to starting launching shots from the perimeter.

Edward Lee

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