In the end, Terps make sure mental beats out physical

Ncaa Women

March 28, 2006|By RICK MAESE

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Talk about intestinal fortitude.

Twenty-four hours earlier, they were running fast breaks to the bathroom. But last night, they were cutting down a net, celebrating the biggest victory the Maryland women's basketball team has managed in nearly two decades.

The victory was gut-wrenching. What led up to it, gut-retching. Just listen to these Terps. They could have been talking about a teen gross-out movie.

"Excruciating," coach Brenda Frese called it.

"There was no sleeping last night," said Kristi Toliver, the freshman guard.

"It was gross," forward Jade Perry said.

"You just stayed right by the bathroom all night," said Laura Harper, the sophomore forward who belonged in a hospital gown, not a jersey.

The Utah Utes didn't hurt Maryland last night. Illness did. The virus was only strong enough to slow the Terps. It couldn't stop them. Nothing could.

Now, a Maryland team that seemed as if it were down to its final breaths is headed to the Final Four. The way the Terps played in their win over the Utes says everything about this team. It tells you exactly why it will be one of the last four teams standing.

We're not talking about a medical miracle here. The Terps didn't fight off that bug; they just fought through it. By opening tip last night, five Maryland players - including two starters - had caught the virus, which included flu-like symptoms.

The timing couldn't have been worse. The Utes' matchup was the biggest game for the Maryland program since the 1980s. The heart of this Terps team was barely learning to walk the last time Maryland made a Final Four appearance.

The virus hit the cheerleading squad, the band, the boosters, the administrative staff. It struck five players, the head coach and an assistant. Altogether, 20 members of the Terps' party were clutching their stomachs these past couple of days. The Albuquerque Marriott was like a makeshift urgent-care center.

At one point last night, you'd swear you saw Testudo sprinting for the locker room.

One-quarter of the team skipped out on a film session the night before the game. Frese canceled their shoot-around yesterday, instead doing a walk-through in the hotel parking lot.

That parking-lot gathering was the first time the entire team had been together since the win over Baylor two nights earlier. Frese did her best to quarantine the sick and contain the illness.

Were they tired last night? Sure. In the first half especially, Frese was rotating players in and out. The result was a terrible 20 minutes of basketball - one of their worst of the season.

For the final half, though, it didn't matter that their bodies had betrayed them. They ran on heart.

Even Frese was at the top of her game, screaming, jumping and barking orders. You'd never know that she could barely stand straight the night before.

"I talked myself through it," she said. "I just really felt they needed to feel my energy and know I was there as well."

This is a Terps team that has dealt well with adversity, that knows exactly when it's time to shift gears. They began the season young and immature. By now, their age is just a footnote on the score sheet.

No way anyone would think Toliver was a freshman. She shoots as though she was born with a hand in her face, and she's fearless from NBA range. Toliver sees the floor like someone on the sidelines just paused a video game.

Her stomach churned last night, but no one could tell.

"I kept thinking about back in the day, MJ scored 55 when he had the flu," she said. "That was my mentality: You've got to play."

Her career high entering the game was 19. Last night, she finished with 28 points - 20 of which came in the second half - and dished out six assists. She was the reason Maryland carried a narrow lead into the final seconds.

With seven seconds left, Utah was a free throw away from sending the Terps home. But Utes guard Shona Thorburn missed one of two free throws, leaving the score tied at 63 as regulation ended. Maryland had one final chance at the Final Four.

"Nobody had the power, but we found it," said junior Shay Doron. "I can't explain why or how, but we did."

After the Terps outscored the Utes 12-2 in the overtime period, the sick team danced to the locker room. Some were flush, most winded. Doron had a net draped around her neck.

The illness still lingered, but you'd never know. For good teams, the mind rules the body.

"I don't think anybody would be complaining about a stomachache at this point," Toliver said.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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