To validate era, Maryland needs a victory tonight

Ncaa Women

March 30, 2009|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,

RALEIGH, N.C. -That night in Boston wasn't the culmination of anything. In fact, it was supposed to be the start.

Kristi Toliver hit The Shot. The Terps cut down the nets. And I know I wasn't the only one thinking Maryland would be a regular visitor to the Final Four.

After all, the starting five for the 2006 championship team featured a junior, two sophomores and a pair of freshmen. They were only going to get better. On paper, they were destined to hit more big shots and cut down more nets.

"But on paper doesn't matter," senior Marissa Coleman said Sunday.

On paper, the winner of Monday night's Raleigh Regional final between top seed Maryland and No. 3 Louisville will advance to the national semifinals. But forget paper, because this one game is about more than this season's Maryland team. It's a chance for the Terps to make a single defining statement about the Maryland women's basketball program.

A win puts the Terps into the Final Four for a second time in four seasons, validating all the accolades, high expectations and lofty predictions that have surrounded Brenda Frese's talented crop the past few seasons.

But lose and we're talking about a championship team that failed to advance past the Elite Eight for a third straight season, a spectacular group that could hang its hat on just a single postseason run in 2006.

Just one game has the potential to frame this program in two drastically different lights.

Frankly, these Terps have had too much talent to not make another appearance in the Final Four. Monday night is no different. Maryland is a better team with stronger leadership, a more dynamic offense and more postseason experience. In fact, among the eight teams left in the tournament, Toliver and Coleman are the only players who know what it's like to win a championship.

Plus, consider this: Coleman and Toliver will be selected in the first round of the WNBA draft next week, which means all five starters from the 2006 title team will have advanced to play professionally, four of them as first-round draft picks.

That's simply too much talent to justify leaving the dance early again, a fact Maryland players seem to recognize.

Since the brackets were announced two weeks ago, the Terps have tried in a variety of ways to explain their confidence level. It's extremely high, they say, but not like that naive 2006 team, not like the self-assured 2007 team and not like last year's snake-bit group that lost to Stanford in the Elite Eight, an exciting game that probably came a round or two too early in the tournament.

Statistically and personnel-wise, this season's team shares many similarities with the title Terps. But that group was too young to apply context to its journey; this one is aware about every step, those it has taken and those it is taking.

Sunday afternoon, coming off an electric 42-point performance against Vanderbilt the night before, Coleman gave a revealing peek at just how confident Maryland feels right now.

"I don't think there's a coach in this country honestly who can devise a plan or have some defensive strategy that can stop us," she said, strong words considering that Louisville's coach, Jeff Walz, is a former Maryland assistant who recruited and coached Coleman, who relies on high-pressure defense and who knows the Terps' offensive weapons inside and out.

But it speaks to where the Terps' collective head is. They trailed Vanderbilt by 18 Saturday, but still, no players thought they were at risk of losing.

"We're in control of our destiny," Toliver said afterward.

Similarly, they control the pen that's scribbling this program's legacy. During an incredible stretch of success, will these Terps be known as regular-season bullies? Postseason underachievers? Or a group that maximized its potential that returned three years later to relive the program's best day?

Coleman knows what's on the line. She has had trouble sleeping lately. She has had to take Benadryl to make sure she's getting proper rest each night.

"I've been staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning," she says. "Knowing that it's one game away and all we have to do is take care of business and we'll be back in the Final Four, it's an incredible feeling."

It's never realistic to expect any team to reach the championship game every season. But Frese's teams have been capable every season.

For the two seniors, both determined to pull this team through the bracket like a pair of stubborn oxen, this is all about ending a career the way everyone had imagined three springs ago.

"We want to go out the way that we came in," Toliver said.

For the program, though, Monday night's game represents something bigger. It's a chance at confirmation. It's an opportunity to lay claim to a level of success that once seemed like Maryland's birthright.

Maybe it's not fair. Maybe it's a simplistic measurement. But whether the Terps managed to take full advantage of four years of unbelievable talent largely hinges on just 40 minutes of basketball.



Monday, 7 p.m.

Raleigh, N.C.


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