Fountain of youth at UM may again soak competition



BOSTON -- The WNBA draft came soon after the NCAA women's championship game -- a little too soon, perhaps, for three Duke players still agonizing over their 78-75 overtime loss to Maryland on Tuesday.

Wednesday afternoon, Duke's Monique Currie went No. 3 in the draft, while teammates Mistie Williams (second round) and Jessica Foley (third round) were selected, too.

Three other first-round picks were from teams that also felt the sting of Final Four defeat: No. 1 selection Seimone Augustus of LSU, No. 9 La'Tangela Atkinson of North Carolina and No. 14 Scholanda Hoston of LSU.

Also taken among the 14 players in the first round were four whose seasons ended in the Elite Eight and three who made it as far as the Sweet 16.

And what college team was totally absent from the draft? The new national champion, Maryland. Yep, the Terrapins had just two seniors, neither of whom got much playing time.

The Final Four's most outstanding player was Laura Harper, a Maryland sophomore who missed all but nine games of her rookie season after an Achilles' tendon injury. Probably the top player for the entire tournament was another Terps sophomore, Crystal Langhorne.

The player that made the biggest shot of the tournament -- a three-pointer with 6.1 seconds left that sent the title game to overtime -- was Maryland freshman Kristi Toliver. Who came away with 28 rebounds in two Final Four games? You guessed it, another Maryland rookie, Marissa Coleman.

And the old lady of the Maryland starting five was a junior, Shay Doron.

Ridiculous? Well, unusual, at least for women's basketball. Unlike the men's game, where early entry into the NBA draft has made seniors at big-time programs rare gems, the women's game keeps its players four years.

It's one of the reasons you don't see all that many "big" upsets in the women's tournament -- the best seeds usually are the most experienced teams.

However, this Maryland team presents the women's game with something it has never had before in the NCAA era: No team this young -- or even close to it -- has won it all.

There have been superstar freshmen, yes -- for example, Chamique Holdsclaw was the best player as a rookie for Tennessee's 1996 NCAA title team. But the Volunteers also had a senior backcourt that year.

Connecticut seemed young in 2003, when a junior class led by Diana Taurasi carried the Huskies' sophomores and freshmen to the title. Compared with Maryland, though, that team was almost grizzled veterans.

Maryland's comeback from 13 down to win -- in just the second championship overtime game in NCAA women's history -- was pretty amazing to watch.

According to an ESPN news release, the game earned a 3.1 rating, up from the 2.6 last season's Baylor-Michigan State final got.

The women's tournament as a whole earned its best television ratings to date, averaging 1,322,717 households for an average rating of 1.5 per game.

Maryland should be a shoo-in for preseason No. 1 next season, but there will be plenty of competition -- including the star-crossed Blue Devils.

They'll nurse another scar; the program is 0-for-4 at the Final Four.

But despite losing three seniors, Duke could again be a Final Four contender in 2007.

So ... where's the rain on the parade? Well, it's a touchy subject, and Maryland fans will be grouchy as heck that people are talking about this but ... they are.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese's recruiting tactics have been grist for the rumor mill ever since she took over the program in 2002. The NCAA recently interviewed some of the Terps' players, which Maryland brushed off as "routine."

Yet the buzz after Tuesday's game was not just about what Maryland might do to everyone else in the sport the next few years, but also what the NCAA might do to Maryland.

For now, though, the Terps take an NCAA trophy back to College Park; it's the program's first. And all of Division I women's hoops nods in acknowledgment: This bunch of freshmen and sophomores sure wasn't kidding around.

Mechelle Voepel writes for The Kansas City Star.

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