Turned-over fortune

A year after title, Terps quickly lose grip on season

Ncaa Women's Tournament

March 22, 2007|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN REPORTER

HARTFORD, Conn. -- While many of their peers spent the week trying to get tans in Florida during spring break, Maryland women's basketball players expected to spend a lot of time this month in Ohio, first in Dayton for an NCAA tournament regional, then in Cleveland, defending their national championship.

Instead, in the wake of Tuesday's shocking 89-78 second-round loss to Mississippi, the Terps returned home yesterday perhaps to grab some down time in a warmer clime, or, more likely, to mull a season of wasted promise.

Off last April's 78-75 win over Duke in the national title game and with the top eight players returning and a ballyhooed transfer from Tennessee in the wings, Maryland started the season ranked No. 1.

Five months later, the Terps finished the season 28-6, but with a conclusion hardly anyone saw coming.

Tuesday's loss to a Rebels team they had beaten by 31 in November was just the latest but final meltdown in an anxious situation against a talented team.

And it followed what became a predictable script in those big games: the Terps turning the ball over under intense backcourt pressure, falling behind by a large margin, expending considerable energy in the second half trying to catch up, then falling short.

"That's what you saw in all of our losses," sophomore forward Marissa Coleman said. "It's something that we're going to learn from. It happened in all of our losses and this was the biggest one."

The Terps did show a measure of improvement in their final two games against Duke and North Carolina, the two Atlantic Coast Conference rivals they defeated in last year's Final Four, as opposed to the first meetings, which they lost handily.

Still, the result was the same for all four games: defeats that sent the team's confidence spiraling. Indeed, the Terps struggled all season to ride the wave of expectations that naturally arose from their championship and early No. 1 status.

"I think early on in the season it was hard for us," Coleman said after Tuesday's game. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to play perfect basketball. Then, we finally got out of it."

That pressure extended in some ways to coach Brenda Frese, who was the hunted rather than the hunter for the first time in her eight-year coaching career.

"It's a different animal, the expectations, the pressure you place on yourself, or that the media places on you each and every time they mention your name," Frese said after the Mississippi game. "When you're a winner and a champion, those are the expectations you want when you are a dominant program."

Finally, in the two weeks between the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament, Frese surprised everyone by benching point guard Kristi Toliver, who had made 49 consecutive starts, including last year's title game, in which she hit a three-pointer with six seconds left to force overtime.

Frese said she was sitting Toliver, who played her usual minutes, for Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who came in at midseason after transferring from Tennessee, to ease some of Toliver's internal pressure.

Toliver chafed at the notion that she was feeling too much pressure. While Toliver scored a team-high 24 points in the Mississippi loss, she also committed 10 of Maryland's season-high 29 turnovers.

In general, the Terps may need a mass group hug to convince themselves that they are as good as they thought they were last April and at the start of this season.

"There's not a person in this locker room that's not going to take this loss to heart and get into the gym this summer and get better and come back next year and show everybody the Maryland basketball team that they saw that won the championship in 2006," said Coleman, a second-team All-ACC performer.

The Terps lose only Shay Doron, the program's second-leading all-time scorer, from their regular rotation for next season.

Crystal Langhorne, a two-time first-team All-ACC forward, who just narrowly missed setting a single-season NCAA record for field-goal percentage, will be back for a senior season.

And Maryland will welcome a five-player freshman class that has been ranked as high as No. 2 nationally and features Towson Catholic guard Marah Strickland, a two-time Sun All-Metro Player of the Year.

That could mean the Terps might be ranked as high as No. 1 in the preseason again, with all the pressure and expectations that come with it, but no title to defend.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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