So, young Terps don't belong, eh?

April 03, 2006|By RICK MAESE

BOSTON — BOSTON-- --The old guard is against the ropes. The new kid on the block just made everyone swoon and now the neighborhood will never be the same.

Can't you just see all of the crusty old-timers peeking through their curtains, grumbling beneath their breath? After all, for the past several months, you only heard one thing uttered about Maryland's women's basketball program: too young, too inexperienced.

Tomorrow the Terps, who play and act as if their Gatorade has been spiked with Pop Rocks, will face Duke in the national championship game, all on the shoulders of a too-young team that never understood why it wasn't supposed to get this far.

Last night's disposal of North Carolina doesn't make Maryland the game's top team, but it does confirm this much: Everyone was wrong.

Young and inexperienced? Yup - and that's exactly why Maryland has gotten this far. Women's basketball is blinded by its history. The tournament is ruled by old coaches and run by old ladies. No one gave Maryland a chance because young and inexperienced never worked before. Those dominant Tennessee and Connecticut teams usually relied on strong senior play.

But here come the Terps, having no idea they don't belong. They dance, shout and play, and they don't really care what you think of them.

Sophomore Laura Harper looks as if she's performing a gymnastics floor routine on the bench. Do they have a straitjacket with No. 15 stitched on the front? And after every basket, Crystal Langhorne shouts and scrunches up her face like a paper ball. She treats every 2-footer off the glass as though it were a buzzer-beating game-winner.

And that coach. Brenda Frese, just 35 (which means she's barely 6 in women's basketball years), is the youngest of the Sweet 16 coaches. She exhibits the same emotion Gary Williams, the Terps' men's coach, famously shows without having to worry about angering network censors.

Some of her words, though, you do need to look up. Last night, she told her team that they're just one win away from the "natty." Let's hope that she means national title, because only one of the team's starters is old enough to drink a Natty Boh. (Junior Shay Doron turned 21 on Saturday.)

By this point, the Terps should have made it clear to everyone that age doesn't matter.

"I think they've shown that youth is just a number," Frese says.

She's right. And once you get on the court, the only numbers that matter are the ones on the scoreboard.

Last night's game against North Carolina could have come down to the opening minutes. Freshman Marissa Coleman could have frozen once the ref flipped the ball into the air. Langhorne could've found herself in early foul trouble. And Harper could've allowed the older, bigger Tar Heels players to beat her around like a kid sister.

"I didn't witness any kind of jitters," Frese said.

The Tar Heels featured a nucleus that's been playing together for the past two years. Just a year ago, the Terps' nucleus was thinking about the prom, not the postseason. The inexperience perfectly frames their mind-set. They don't know what it's like to come this far and lose. They don't understand what's on the line. And they can't comprehend how it will feel to actually cut down that net.

It's tough to get lost in the importance of the whole thing when your world is only the size of a locker room.

"We have nothing to lose," Coleman said. "We just go out there and have fun."

Guard Kristi Toliver, who almost single-handedly led the Terps past Utah last week, was the only one who played like a freshman last night. Her shots weren't falling and she committed 12 turnovers and had just two assists.

The critics weren't completely off their rockers, of course. The Terps were once a young team. They played sloppily, couldn't control the ball and struggled to execute. But now they're doing what championship teams do: peaking at just the right time.

It's a special thing when you find that mixture of youthful exuberance and talent. LaMont Jordan has been around sports his entire life. The former Maryland football player now lines up for the Oakland Raiders, and he's been following Maryland's run closely. He attended the ACC tournament, then cheered on the Terps in Albuquerque and now here in Boston.

"They got this far because of how young they are, how passionate they are, how hard they're willing to work," Jordan said last night, wearing the No. 22 jersey of Doron. "They might be young in age, but those girls play big basketball."

Today the Terps have scheduled an open practice, the first time anyone can remember a team practicing in front of cameras and reporters' eyes leading up to the Big Game. It doesn't matter with this group.

Young and inexperienced. The analysts and experts were exactly right. Only now, the context has changed. The Terps didn't get this far despite their age. They've gotten here because of it.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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