By Milton Kent
April 3, 2006
As the horn sounded and the Terps reveled in their 81-70 win over North Carolina in last night's NCAA women's basketball semifinal, protocol went out the window, as the young Maryland players eschewed the music and jumped and shouted and gesticulated, urging their fan section to join in their joy at TD Banknorth Garden.
It was about the only time all evening the Terps, who start two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, showed any lack of emotional control. They otherwise stayed focused and withstood a furious attack from the nation's top-ranked team.
"We just proved to the country that we should be the No. 1 team," said freshman point guard Kristi Toliver. "We proved to everyone that we're ... a great team. Everyone is extremely excited. People can't sit still. I'm about to burst."
Afterward, ESPN captured coach Brenda Frese telling her team, which was ranked 14th in the Associated Press preseason poll, that it was one game from "winning the natty," meaning the national championship, which they can capture tomorrow night with a victory over Duke, which routed LSU, 64-45, in the second Final Four game.
The five starters accounted for all of Maryland's points, with four scoring in double figures and the one who didn't, junior guard Shay Doron, making the most of her eight points, as all but one came in the second half.
Doron's jumper with 1:58 left, on a play where she nearly stumbled and gave up the ball, gave Maryland a 73-68 lead, after the Tar Heels had sliced an 11-point deficit to two.
"I had that same opportunity the first half and I kind of read it wrong and tried to give it to Crystal [Langhorne] and it was a turnover," Doron said. "At halftime, the coaches were like, `That's your shot. It goes in every time, so shoot that with confidence.' "
Maryland (33-4) did nearly everything with abounding confidence last night, shooting 56 percent for the game -- 65 percent in the second half -- and outrebounding the Tar Heels (33-2) by 41-31, as they advanced to play in the school's first NCAA women's national title game.
The 1977-78 Maryland team lost to UCLA in the final of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which largely governed women's athletics before the NCAA took over in 1982.
Last night, the Terps gained some well-earned respect by standing toe-to-toe with a physical team, taking its best punch and delivering a couple as well.
"All season, this team has played with a chip on their shoulder and I really felt like they have had to fight for respect every step of the way," Frese said. "They've got a lot of believers after the performance they put on."
Perhaps the lack of respect comes from the fact that four years ago, in Frese's first season, the Terps were 10-18. Frese has quickly built a power, however, with back-to-back top-five recruiting classes.
The four key members of those two classes, sophomores Langhorne and Laura Harper and freshmen Marissa Coleman and Toliver, played important roles in Maryland's success last night.
Harper had a team-high 24 points and nine rebounds, including six on the offensive glass.
"Carolina has so many weapons, and so do we," Harper said. "I just wanted to play confidently and have fun out there, and that's what I did."
Her frontcourt mate, Langhorne, a second-team Associated Press All-American who was passed over Saturday for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's Kodak All-America team, seemed to take the slight out on North Carolina, scoring 16 of her 23 points in the first half.
Coleman, the Atlantic Coast Conference's Rookie of the Year, had 12 points and 14 rebounds, eight of them in the first half.
"We knew going in that we were going to have to rebound," Coleman said. "We felt if we outrebounded them by 10, we'd have executed the game plan great."
Toliver had 12 turnovers but scored 14 points. More importantly, she did an exceptional job defensively on North Carolina All-America guard Ivory Latta, holding the junior to 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting and a dismal 1-for-10 from three-point range.
"That was my job," Toliver said. "It was my main focus and all I had on my mind. Someone had to stop Ivory and I wanted to be the one who did it."
Said Frese: "We wanted to try to turn them into a jump-shooting team as much as possible. And we wanted them to have to take difficult shots. We knew [Latta] was going to score her points, but we wanted her to have to take some difficult shots under pressure."
Contrary to conventional wisdom, which held that the two high-scoring teams would run all night, Maryland went patient on offense and executed its half-court sets. However, the Terps did commit 26 turnovers, a season high.
But the Terps kept North Carolina from turning their mistakes into transition baskets. Instead, the Tar Heels, who shot 36.8 percent from the field, were forced to shoot jumpers.
"Maryland, from the tip of the ball, wanted it really bad, and they came out with the W," said North Carolina sophomore forward Erlana Larkins, who had a game-high 28 points and 10 rebounds, before fouling out in the final minute.
So, the Terps players are about to head into unexplored territory. Forgive them, then, if they don't quite know how to act.
"I'm about to cry," sophomore forward Jade Perry said. "It's unreal. It's such a great feeling to have. We wanted to prove the haters wrong."
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