Terps earn spot in first NCAA title game

Maryland women beat rival North Carolina

April 03, 2006|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,SUN REPORTER

BOSTON -- As the buzzer echoed across the arena, Laura Harper and Marissa Coleman met in midair. The two players bumped chests, and as their feet found the ground, their arms were already draped around each other. Their smiles and shrieks were drowned out by the celebration all around them.

The Maryland women's basketball team advanced to the national championship game in the NCAA tournament by beating conference rival North Carolina last night, 81-70.

The Terrapins' impressive run through a tough tournament field concludes tomorrow. They'll play Duke, which beat Louisiana State, 64-45, in last night's other semifinal. The title game is scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m.

Tomorrow marks the Terps' first NCAA tournament championship game. Maryland, which last visited the Final Four in the 1988-1989 season, lost to UCLA in the title game in 1977-1978, but that was when the tournament was run by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. The NCAA began staging the tournament in 1982, instantly boosting its profile and relevance.

"All season long, this team has played with a chip on their shoulder and has really felt like they've had to fight for respect all along the way," said Brenda Frese, 35, in just her fourth year as coach of the Terps. "They have a lot of believers after tonight."

The Terps are a young team - their top players and coach regarded as too young and too inexperienced by critics.

"We used that as motivation, watching ESPN for the past couple of days and not getting too many highlights, not getting too many analysts talking about us," Coleman said. "We used that as motivation and said we were going to come in and show everyone what Maryland is all about."

With the win nearly official, players hopped in place, smiling and clapping on the court. "I'm about to cry. It's unreal," said sophomore Jade Perry. "It's such a great feeling to have."

Frese stood on the sidelines, her arms crossed. She shook her head from side to side, almost in disbelief. In the stands, on living room couches and on bar stools, certainly others were also struck by Maryland's meteoric rise to the top.

The Maryland program climbed back onto the radar screen this season. The Terps were regarded as a national power more than two decades ago, under longtime coach Chris Weller, but had mostly toiled in mediocrity until Frese took over in 2002.

The coach quickly found success through tireless recruiting, attracting some of the nation's top high school players to the College Park campus. They've grown into some of the nation's best college players, validated by last night's emotional win.

"We just proved to the country that we should be the No. 1 team," freshman Kristi Toliver said after the big win.

The game was sloppy, as energetic as it was ugly. The Terps wrested control midway through the second half. With victory not far away, Maryland players began to punctuate each play with chest-thumping and loud shouts, mostly drowned out by a rowdy group of Maryland fans. The school sold out its allotment of 800 tickets.

The Terps were led by sophomore Crystal Langhorne, who finished with 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting. Langhorne, who led the country in shooting this season, was especially strong in the first half, making her first seven shots.

The triumph marked Maryland's 33rd victory, becoming the school's first basketball team - men or women - to win that many.

The Terps entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed. Before the game, Frese told her players that in the past two years, the national title was won by a No. 2 seed, last year by Baylor and in 2004 by Connecticut. Maryland players felt slighted that they weren't awarded a No. 1 seed and have assumed the underdog role in the locker room.

National critics questioned whether Maryland's inexperience would begin to show under the bright lights of the national semifinal game. But even before television cameras, a sellout crowd and nearly 600 members of the media, the Terps didn't seem to suffer from youthful jitters.

Maryland executed its game plan in the first half, not always pretty, but effective. The Terps controlled the pace, refusing to get into a sprinting contest with an athletic Tar Heels team. Maryland worked the ball inside, and Langhorne had 16 points at the break.

In the second half, Harper provided a much-needed spark, scoring 14 of her team-high 24 points. The seconds quickly ticked away on North Carolina's season.

Last night's game marked an end to North Carolina's fantastic run. The Tar Heels, favored by many to hoist the championship trophy, finished the season 33-2. Their only two losses came at the hands of the Terps.

"This is something that I've always dreamed about," said sophomore Ashleigh Newman. "The feeling is just indescribable.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

The march to the final

SEMIFINALS

Maryland 81, North Carolina 70

Duke 64, LSU 45

COVERAGE, PG 1D

TOMORROW'S TITLE GAME

Maryland vs. Duke

8:30 p.m. ESPN

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