Untimely Terps benching won't sit well

March 22, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

No, it's not time to register the domain name firebrenda.com. Or for any talk shows, message boards or column inches to be filled with fire-breathing venom about the wrong direction the program has taken.

That kind of talk is reserved for the Maryland men's basketball team, of course. National championships don't have the same currency they once did, we've learned. The honeymoon in the women's program seems safe from a premature end.

Still, in the wake of that debacle Tuesday night at the Hartford Civic Center, it is appropriate to ask the question: What the hell was that?

Mississippi 89, no-longer-reigning champion Maryland 78, in the second round of the NCAA tournament is what happened, and it wasn't even remotely that close.

Maybe "how" is the more relevant question, and this is where the fictional Web site comes in. Good luck to one of the fastest-rising stars the women's game has ever seen, Brenda Frese, explaining this one away.

If you were unlucky enough to watch Tuesday night, to make the effort to keep up while ESPN whipped from one game to another, most of the time you were tuning back in just in time to see someone's pocket get picked again, another pass thrown into press row, another easy Ole Miss basket. The announcers couldn't even keep up - as soon as they'd say, for example, that the Terps had turned the ball over eight of their past nine possessions, here came No. 9 out of 10.

Twenty turnovers in the first half, 29 in all, leading to 42 points.

It was embarrassing. Thrilling, maybe, to fans hoping the women's tournament gets some of the Cinderella action the men's tourney thrives on, and a ton of fun for those in the women's game who are jealous of Frese and Maryland's instant success. But for the defending champs themselves, getting schooled like that will be extremely hard to digest for a long time.

The Terps were legit; this won't taint last year's accomplishments. But no one should be writing the season's obituary this early. Yet we are, and it's not just a too-bad, tough-loss wrap-up.

The Benching will hang over that game, this season, that coach's head for a long, long time.

This almost preposterously loaded team is gone exactly two games after Frese changed starters at point guard. Right at the end of a two-week break since the ACC tournament, apparently with no warning, and with an explanation that the player - sophomore Kristi Toliver, whose epic three-pointer in the championship game last year had been replayed daily for about the past month on ESPN's tournament commercials - didn't seem to grasp.

Hmmm. Bench the point guard, then turn the ball over on practically every other possession two games later, like a bunch of third-graders playing the big kids at recess.

Maybe there's no correlation. Maybe we'll never know for sure if there is. Maybe that's the worst result that can come from this. We'll never know if Maryland would still be playing next weekend if Frese had left well enough alone.

That stinks for her. But she, and Maryland, asked for it.

Granted, coaching that much talent that had won so much so early is harder than it looks; so is repeating, which is why it doesn't happen often in any sport. You'd think that as long as Frese was keeping everybody motivated and focused, this team could do it. Losing regular-season games in the ACC shouldn't have been an issue; they had done that last year, too.

The NCAA landscape before them, before they had to deal with Duke and North Carolina again, didn't seem so daunting that any drastic measures had to be taken.

Frese took a drastic measure.

It's not impossible to think that Mississippi just had the right defensive plan for the Terps, or that the targets on the champs' backs were too large no matter whom they played.

But how can anybody think that with the 500-pound elephant of the point-guard switch in the room?

Sure, it's a no-win situation. Lovie Smith was berated weekly for not benching Rex Grossman, even while the Bears were riding him to a Super Bowl, and when Grossman bombed out in Miami, the catcalls were renewed. Toliver might have had a wretched tournament game in her just waiting to come out, and it was going to come out whether she started or came off the bench.

But this was a very good thing going, a repeat champion-contender thing. Both Toliver and the player moved ahead of her, newcomer Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, have contributed lots this season, and both were scheduled to be back together next year.

Yeah, next year. That's a good time to experiment, to shake things up, to send a message. Or earlier in the regular season. Not on the eve of the opening of the defense of the title Toliver helped them win.

Frese's reason made good basketball sense. It appears - appears, that is, in the form of 29 turnovers, 10 by Toliver, and a thunderous postseason butt-whupping - that keeping the rotation as-is, at the most critical position, made more sense.

After his team's NCAA elimination by Butler, helped by some questionable decisions among other factors, Gary Williams talked the way all coaches do after the season ends with the inevitable loss, about waking up at 3 a.m. in the offseason replaying games and moments.

His counterpart is sure to have nights just like that - a lot of questions to answer. Including one great big point-guard-sized one.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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