Terps women soak up spotlight

Reigning NCAA champs savor cheers after feeling like afterthoughts at last year's event

October 14, 2006|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun reporter

COLLEGE PARK -- A year ago on the night of Maryland Madness, the official start of college basketball here, Marissa Coleman and her Maryland women's basketball teammates felt like afterthoughts, like a speed bump on the way to the introduction of the men's team.

A year later, and with a national championship in tow, Coleman peeked her head out from the tunnel entrance at Comcast Center last night, waiting to see and feel how much love the crowd would wash over her and her teammates.

"It [the feeling] is a lot different," said Coleman, a sophomore and the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year. "We were excited last year, but this year, just knowing that a lot of the focus is going to be on us and we're not in the shadow like we were before is special. Everybody is excited to see us, where last year they were coming to see the men and we were kind of the extra. This year, it's kind of like they're coming to see us, too."

The players waited through highlight videos, an alumni game, performances from dance teams, spirit squads, cheerleaders and gymnasts, and a dunk contest before they could take their bows for the program's first national title, taking the court to a highly improvised, if not particularly well-choreographed, dance.

A roar slowly built as highlights of the team's 78-75 overtime win over Duke in the April 4 national title game aired on the arena scoreboard, and continued through the introduction of sophomore Kristi Toliver, who hit a three-pointer near the end of regulation in the championship game to force the overtime.

The wave of noise crested when coach Brenda Frese strode out onto the court, carrying the national championship trophy, which she held aloft. Then, appealing to the crowd's less-sensitive side, Frese challenged the mostly student audience to help the team wrest the ACC attendance crown away from the hated Blue Devils.

"Last season, we finished No. 2 in the conference in attendance behind Duke," said Frese to a chorus of boos. "Well, I don't know about you, but I know that I not only want to beat Duke on the court - and I think we did that - but I want to beat them in the stands with your help. Come support this team."

The women will start the season Nov. 10 at Middle Tennessee State before their home opener Nov. 12 against George Mason, when the national championship banner will be unfurled. In the process, the women's team, which returns its top eight scorers from last season, is expected to be ranked No. 1 in most national polls and may capture some of the affection that traditionally has been directed toward the men's team.

"It feels amazing, but the men are coming out, too," said junior Laura Harper, the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. "We're excited for them. We don't look at it like it's any kind of competition. We're both teams that play here. They see us the same way. They respect us just as much now as they did then, because we're friends. We're excited that we're getting fans. We want people to be excited about women's basketball, just like they are for men's basketball."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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