April 5, 2006
Heroes in a half-shell.
Say it slowly. Don't spit it out. Bounce it around your mouth before letting the words roll off your tongue. Something to savor, isn't it?
The Maryland Terps were too everything this season. They were too young. Too inexperienced. And last night they trailed by too much.
You know what they thought of it all? Too bad.
These Terps just never knew better. They didn't know to quit.
Funny the way tear glands work. Six seconds away from disappointment. You bet they would've been crying courtside. A freshman guard - a young woman who gave up 12 turnovers two days ago, who shot just 1-for-9 from the field in the first half -- was falling backward behind the three-point arc as the final seconds ticked away. It's in. Tie game. You bet they cried.
When you write it down on paper, no matter how you twist the numbers and scenarios, Maryland wasn't supposed to win last night's NCAA championship. The Terps weren't as deep, and they weren't as talented.
The experts all loved to remind you that the Terps had never been there before and they might not even know how to win the big game. All five analysts at ESPN.com picked the Blue Devils to win, a team that's appeared in three Final Fours and won zero titles in recent years. They knew how to win?
The biggest play last night didn't come in the extra period. The shot that mattered most came from the hands of the most unpredictable player on the court.
The Terps had already come back from a 13-point deficit and trailed by just three points when Kristi Toliver got the ball. You could see it in her eyes. She was going to shoot the ball. All anyone could do is hold his or her breath (which happens to be the only way you can watch Toliver play).
She brushed by teammate Marissa Coleman, and then shot past second screen Crystal Langhorne. You knew what was coming next. It's the same shot Toliver had made a thousand times before on the playground, in the practice gym and in her dreams.
Between her and the basket was the Blue Devils' 6-foot-7 center, Alison Bales, which is a lot like saying the only thing separating the United States from Europe is a little puddle of water.
"That's a big girl, she's very long," Toliver said. "I knew if I got it over her, it'd feel pretty good. As soon as it left my hands, I knew it was going in."
And as soon as it went in, everything came into focus. Not just what was about to happen in overtime (the Terps were 5-0 in OT this season), but everything that had happened these past few months.
It wasn't always pretty, but somehow it was perfect. There are those rare instances - the word "destiny" comes to mind - when something flawed can equate to perfection.
Just a couple of months ago, the Terps played like a young team. They were as rough around the edges as they were inside the edges. They were sloppy, couldn't execute and only had a slight idea of how much room they had for growth.
And who would've guessed they'd not only mature and fulfill their potential, but they'd do it in just a few quick weeks? There were glimpses early on - a win over Michigan State, a close loss to Tennessee, but it wasn't until the conference season began rolling that the Terps' maturation process began snowballing. It was like watching time-elapsed video of a flower blooming, where each second of film captures several hours of life.
Soon they beat North Carolina in overtime. And they beat Duke - Duke, which had beaten the Terps 14 straight times - in the ACC tournament.
The NCAA tournament was like a new season. They were light-years away from the turnovers and the injuries and the question marks. The only flaws on their record came against schools that were ranked either No. 1 or 2 in the country.
The Terps steamrolled through their bracket, beating the defending champions, beating a stomach virus, beating North Carolina for a second time.
Like any great team, they were poised to peak at just the right moment. And last night you knew the moment when you saw it. When Toliver came off that second screen and leaped backward. She hanged in midair. The ball hanged in midair. Maryland's championship hopes hanged in midair.
Too young? Too inexperienced? Too bad.
At a time when the school's men's program, has plummeted off the national map, Frese, a fourth-year coach, has done amazing things with a program that is only just beginning. That's when you know you're onto something big, when you cut down a net, hoist a trophy and in the back of your mind, you know that it's all really just the beginning.
You can shout it now: Heroes in a half-shell. The Terps talent is all coming back next season, and it's a phrase you'll be hearing around College Park a lot more often.
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