Pressure rises for No. 3 Terps

With ACC race at stake, UM braces for tenacious defense of No. 2 UNC

January 28, 2007|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Reporter

College Park -- Since she arrived on campus last year, Maryland junior guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood has let anyone who will listen know that she's not a fan of cold weather, which makes winters here interesting for the Pomona, Calif., native.

Yet, while Wiley-Gatewood figures to get caught up in a blizzard tonight, when No. 2 North Carolina unleashes its patented half-court trap on the third-ranked Terps in tonight's nationally televised showdown at Comcast Center, she'll actually try to get immersed in the storm.

"Coach J [assistant Joanna Bernabei] says to welcome the trap," Wiley-Gatewood said. "Basically, keep dribbling until you see somebody's open. You've got to welcome the trap and let them come to you, but also try to dribble it out. That's the first thing that comes to your mind. Don't panic if you're a guard. That's what I'm still learning."

The Tar Heels (22-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who lead the nation in scoring (89.9 points), not so coincidentally are also first in the country in steals (16.3 per game), using turnovers from their presses and traps to get easy baskets, toward a goal of 100 possessions each game.

The presence of Wiley-Gatewood, a 5-foot-9 Tennessee transfer, the national high school girls Player of the Year in 2004, as a second ballhandler to assist starter Kristi Toliver might be critical to Maryland's efforts to knock off one of the nation's two remaining unbeaten teams.

"Everyone knows when you play Carolina, they're going to press and they're going to press for 40 minutes," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "The addition of Sa'de is going to give a comfort level for Kristi, so she doesn't feel like she's the sole ballhandler. Sa'de's strength is the ability to break a press and being able to help handle the basketball. That gives us another threat and weapon on the floor."

The Terps (21-1, 5-1 in the ACC) actually had fewer turnovers in their lone loss to North Carolina last season than in the two wins over the Tar Heels. In fact, in Maryland's 81-70 victory over the Tar Heels in the Final Four last April, the Terps committed 26 turnovers, including 12 by Toliver.

But at least Toliver was on the floor. In the ACC tournament final, when North Carolina won, 91-80, Toliver had three fouls in the first half and was limited to 26 minutes. In the two wins against the Tar Heels, Toliver averaged 37.5 minutes, and when the Terps got into their half-court sets, they were able to score.

"That's what Carolina is all about, getting the most possessions in a game," Toliver said. "They just want to get up-tempo. They're not necessarily the best shooting team in the country, but they go after the rebounds, get their boards and go out."

Though tonight's game is, technically, just one of 14 games on the ACC schedule, for the Terps, there is a bit of urgency attached.

With North Carolina and Duke - the teams Maryland vanquished in the Final Four last year - without losses, the Terps cannot afford to fall two games down in the loss column, since the regular-season winner will get the top seed in the ACC tournament and would avoid having to play both the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in Greensboro, N.C., in March.

On a personal level, the Terps, who were drubbed at Duke two weeks ago to lose their No. 1 ranking and unbeaten status, are looking at tonight's game to earn a measure of redemption against one of the nation's best teams.

"We looked bad that game [against Duke] and people were kind of questioning how good we really are, whether we're disciplined, whether we can focus, whether we can play defense," junior center Laura Harper said.

"This will be a good game to show we just had a bad game that day. We're actually focused and we're still up there and we want to show everyone else that we're not going to be a team that folds at the end of the season."

The Terps might carry something of a psychological edge into tonight's game. Since losing to Baylor in the 2005 Tempe Regional final, North Carolina has won 55 of 57 games over the past 1 1/2 seasons, beating along the way such traditional women's powers as Tennessee, Connecticut, Vanderbilt and Duke twice each.

Those two losses, however, have come to the Terps, who have beaten the Tar Heels in three of the past four meetings dating to January 2005, including a 98-95 overtime win at Chapel Hill last year to strip North Carolina of its unbeaten status and No. 1 ranking.

"It's just one of those things that you can't explain," Toliver said of Maryland's recent mastery of the Tar Heels. "But I know whenever we play Carolina, we have that focus and mind-set that we want to beat Carolina. Maybe it's just the hatred for the University of North Carolina that's fueling that trend."

When asked if she felt the hatred was reciprocated, Toliver smiled and said, "Definitely. And I'll leave it at that." milton.kent@baltsun.com

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