For a group of players that has never seen college basketball at this level, the Maryland women's team has taken to the Final Four and TDBanknorth Garden like clams to chowder.
Most of Maryland's players were in diapers or riding tricycles the last time the school reached the national semifinals in 1989, so one might well expect the callow Terps, who start two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, to be shell-shocked or at least be taken aback by all the attention and the magnitude of tonight's meeting with North Carolina.
To the contrary, the Terps (32-4) are working an interesting dichotomy: relishing their moment in the spotlight, while trying as best as possible to reduce the national semifinal contest to just another game.
"This feeling is surreal. It almost feels like a fantasy," said sophomore forward Laura Harper. "It's hard to bring our focus back to playing, I think. But I know we're going to go hard in practice. We've been soaking everything up and enjoying it, but we do have a game [tonight] and it still is a business trip. I think we just have to refocus."
That may be considerably difficult for the Terps, considering they are the only one of the four teams here that is not only bringing a roster of players that has never reached this point, but also a coach, Brenda Frese, who has never coached in a Final Four.
Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, whose Blue Devils will meet Louisiana State in tonight's second semifinal, was in a similar situation in 1999, when Duke beat then-three-time defending champion Tennessee in the East Regional final toearn the school's first Final Four berth.
"I don't think I actually ever came down off of Cloud 9 until I was back home after we had lost to Purdue in the championship," Goestenkors said. "So, I almost didn't have time to really catch my breath and understand what was happening to us.
"And once you get here for the first time, it is really truly overwhelming with all the media exposure and all of the events that you're required to go to. The game itself is just two hours and probably the one thing that you actually want to do is play the game, but everything that surrounds it is extremely overwhelming."
The Terps, who have won 10 of their past 11 games, are drawing a modicum of comfort from the fact that their opponent tonight will be quite a familiar one, North Carolina (33-1), a team they've split two games with this season.
"I think [knowing North Carolina] gives us a tremendous amount of confidence," Frese said. "You're not having to use that first 10, 20 minutes, the first half of the game to get used to each other's style. We already know from the tip that this game's going to be a track meet. And I think you're going to see a game from the tip that's just going to be uptempo right away."
Indeed, the two teams, each among the top four in the nation in scoring during the tournament, combined to score 364 points in two games; the first a 98-95 overtime game won by Maryland in Chapel Hill in February and a 90-81 contest that North Carolina won last month in the ACC tournament final.
"We have made each other better by having that competition all year long," said North Carolina reserve guard Jessica Sell. "I feel like they are really familiar with us as well and it might be to our advantage to play a team that has never seen us because our pressure and our intensity surprise some people, whereas Maryland has seen us twice. But I think there are more pros than cons."
The Tar Heels, the top-ranked team in the country, do employ one of the nation's best press defenses, a 1-3-1 trap off made baskets that exploits their speed advantage. The Terps handled it well in Chapel Hill, erasing a 10-point halftime deficit to win in overtime, one of five extra-period victories this season.
In the rematch, North Carolina forced 19 Maryland turnovers, exploiting their ball-handling miscues when freshman point guard Kristi Toliver was forced to sit for long stretches because of foul trouble. In addition, the Tar Heels pounded Maryland on the offensive glass 20-12.
"We have to limit them to one shot and box out," Harper said. "We have to be in the game because they killed us on the offensive boards. That's what they do. They live and die by rebounding and transition. We can break their press. I think the key is to stay calm and spread the floor. I think the point guard we have in Toliver and her confidence really helps us feel like this game is perfecting the things we messed up earlier this season."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun