Won't be denied

ncaa women maryland 78, vanderbilt 74

Senior Coleman lifts Terps onto her back

March 29, 2009|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -The box score will forever show that Marissa Coleman lit up the scoreboard like a fireworks celebration. Highlights will prove she did what no Maryland player before her managed to do. And history will remember that she carried her team into the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

But what Coleman did Saturday afternoon is hard to quantify with numbers and difficult to capture with cameras. She could've started flapping her arms at midcourt and floated to the rafters and it would have been easier to rationalize than the closing minutes of Maryland's emotional 78-74 come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt.

The tournament buzz will focus on Coleman's 42 points - a career high, a school record and the fifth-most in tournament history - plus those 15 rebounds. But that's only part of the story. Coleman didn't propel the top-seeded Terps into Monday's showdown with third seed Louisville solely by scoring.

A television timeout was called with 6:59 remaining in the game. Maryland trailed 66-57. Coleman walked up to coach Brenda Frese in the huddle and said, "Coach B, I'm guarding 34."

Christina Wirth, the Commodores' No. 34, already had 22 points. Frese had tried using Lynetta Kizer and Dee Liles, but Wirth kept firing. Never before this season has Coleman requested such an assignment, and truth be told, Frese has better defenders. But when the senior raised her hand, the coach didn't hesitate. "OK," Frese told her.

"I just knew that as a senior, she was not going to let her college career end," Frese explained later. "If she was asking for it, then she really wanted it."

The game was about to swing wildly on this matchup between the game's leading scorers. Wirth missed her final four field-goal attempts, and Coleman scrambled on both ends like a player possessed. She was on top of every play, so close to the action you would think she had the basketball on a yo-yo string.

Wirth was like everyone else in the arena, relegated to spectator status for the hottest show in sneakers.

At the 4:28 mark, the Terps trailed by nine. In less than a minute, Coleman scored seven unanswered points and turned what had once been an 18-point Vanderbilt lead into a one-possession game.

Before anyone could catch her breath, Kristi Toliver hit a streaking Liles with a bounce pass. Liles' layup with 2:07 left gave the Terps their first lead of the game. Wirth later hit a couple of free throws to tie it, but with 27.9 seconds remaining, Coleman made a pull-up jumper in the paint. The basket made it 76-74 and kept alive the Terps' title dreams.

"I feel like we won this game for 39 minutes," Wirth said. She barely knew what hit her. Coleman had 13 points and five rebounds in the final 6:12

When it was over, the Maryland locker room wasn't beaming over her offensive production. Sure, the Terps needed every one of those points, but Coleman brings so much more to the table. If Saturday's game is any indication, Maryland could need everything she has if they're to advance to the Final Four.

"I think the biggest intangible with Marissa is her heart," Frese said, "her will to win."

Throughout the game, Coleman was aware of the scoreboard. She knew her team was struggling. She kept reminding herself any game could be her last. That's why she needed the ball in her hands. That's why she called for the toughest defensive assignment when the game was on the line. And that's why she took the shot with the score tied and less than a minute to play. Coleman has taken full responsibility for the Terps' fate.

"I love playing with this team; I love wearing the uniform," she said. "That's what I told myself every time: I was going to defend, rebound, whatever I needed to do to keep my career here going."

Her individual performance overshadowed a relatively unimpressive game for the Terps. Despite finishing with 17 points, Toliver committed costly turnovers and was hampered by fouls. Kizer struggled to score against smaller defenders, and Marah Strickland finished with just one point and a single field-goal attempt, her worst outing of the season.

The Terps were flustered by the Commodores' defensive intensity, they allowed a smaller team to be the aggressor, and they struggled to control the ball, the tempo and at times, their emotions.

Frese called the game a "definite wake-up call," as the Terps prepare for a Louisville team whose coach, Jeff Walz, was a Maryland assistant for the 2006 national championship.

"This is how it is in the NCAA tournament," Frese said. "Everything's going to be a battle."

Maryland was fortunate to escape. And even more fortunate to have a player like Coleman, who is as determined as anyone in this tournament to make sure her last game is for the championship.

After what she did Saturday, nothing she does should surprise. If she does start flapping her arms, it might be wise to look up. Coleman's capable of anything.

NCAA REGIONAL FINAL

MARYLAND WOMEN (31-4) VS. LOUISVILLE (32-4)

Monday, 7 p.m.

Raleigh, N.C.

TV: ESPN

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