UM women find groove, and party's just starting

December 07, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

It's confidence, but it's also a good deal more. It doesn't quite reach the level of swagger yet, although it won't be a surprise if or when it gets there.

Whatever it is, the Maryland women's basketball team has it. The Terps bring it to every game they play, and no matter what happens on the court, it never goes away. Every team they face feels it, and eventually they buckle under it just as much as they succumb to the waves of talent.

It doesn't come from being defending national champions, from being deeper than pretty much every other team in America, from still having underclassmen at the core of the team, from bringing in even more elite players midseason, or even from being the likely favorite to win the next two titles, if not more.

"We kind of fed off it last year," sophomore point guard Kristi Toliver said Monday night after another routine drubbing of a decent Siena team at Comcast Center. "We ended the season really confident; every time we won, we got a little bit more. We felt it even when we'd lost games, to Duke and to North Carolina twice - we thought, `Hey, two good teams, close games, we'll beat them next time.' And we did.

"All it's done," she continued, "is carry over to this year."

Has it ever. The real challenges to the Terps so far - they are 11-0 after last night's 77-33 rout at Northern Iowa - are measured not in games, but in minutes. Putting a "scare" into them is a relative term. The quality of play from teams on the level of Siena has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, and on Monday, Siena led the Terps with 7 1/2 minutes left in the first half, forced several frantic timeouts and mass substitutions. It lost by 39 anyway.

Granted, the Terps' nonconference schedule isn't exactly packed with Tennessee and Connecticut, and it won't get serious for another month when Michigan State visits. But it hasn't taken that level of competition to show that this group is more than special.

Or that they believe in themselves, and have no intention of wasting the talent on hand or the opportunity before them.

A major theme of coach Brenda Frese, almost from the time the Terps cut down the nets in Boston last spring, has been to be ready for every team's best shot, because the Terps have a big target on their backs. Riding on their enormous ability isn't going to be enough. They're going to be lulled into complacency often, Frese warned, especially early in the season and early in games. Respect everybody and play accordingly.

"It's a lot different than last year," senior Shay Doron said. "Last year we snuck up on a lot of people."

The average margin of victory is 33.1. The coach and her players believe it could be better. They found the positives in struggling early against Siena and still running away with the game, in getting better as the game went on, reducing the struggles, ensuring that they can win under any circumstances.

"You can't underestimate any team you play, at home or on the road. This is every team's biggest game," Frese said after the Siena rout. "We're constantly being challenged, and it's good to see that we can match that intensity, especially in the second half."

In other words, the lesson has sunk in, right? "I think we should understand it after 10 games," she said.

It can't be easy. You really do have to see this team to believe it, to realize that the list of blue-chip players from top to bottom is in College Park, the way it has been for so long in Knoxville, Tenn., and Storrs, Conn. That they could go nine deep right now, that five or six players could average in double figures, that they likely will lose only one key component (Doron) after this season, that one potential star (Tennessee transfer Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood) won't even suit up until the end of this month.

And that with the youngsters - particularly Toliver and fellow sophomore Marissa Coleman, who had a triple double Saturday and a double double of points and assists (as a forward) Monday - the sky might be the limit when it comes to where they will stand among all the players ever at Maryland, in the Atlantic Coast Conference, in the nation.

No wonder the Maryland players are so self-assured, so concrete in their beliefs that they are the better team every time they take the floor.

"You have to be confident to be a good basketball player, to have that swagger," Toliver said. "We're not looking back at last year; we're taking that [championship] and using it to get better every day.

"We're the No. 1 team in the country. We need to play like that and act like it every day. We have to play to the best of our ability, because if we do, there's no one that can beat us."

david.steele@baltsun.com

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