Ten years later, Maryland celebrates its 2006 women's basketball national champions

Ten years after Maryland won its lone women's basketball championship, Brenda Frese and her players reflect.

The words slipped innocently from Ashleigh Newman's mouth, just an offhanded comment during a film session about what she and her Maryland basketball teammates would do "once they had their natty."

Brenda Frese noticed, however, and quickly processed that her players — none of the starters older than a junior — were speaking in matter-of-fact teenage slang about seizing a national championship.

Frese, herself a brash young coach who'd never led a team past the second round of the tournament, loved it.

"They were fearless," she says, reflecting 10 years later. "They didn't know any better, and that was the gift of all of that season."

Frese's precocious Terps did in fact get their "natty," beating arch-rival Duke for the title after freshman Kristi Toliver hit one of the most memorable shots in NCAA women's history. Maryland has since cemented itself as one of the perennial elites of the sport, but the 2005-2006 team remains the program's only national champion, the foundation for all that followed.

The team's tale is bittersweet, because young and gifted though they were, the Terps of Toliver and Shay Doron and Crystal Langhorne never climbed back to the top of the mountain. Their achievement was a singular one, and the university will celebrate the team's 10th anniversary on Saturday when Frese's No. 6 Terps host No. 9 Ohio State.

The years have dulled none of the improbable splendor of that national title run nor diminished the friendships that bound the players.

With a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen in the starting lineup, the Terps went 6-0 in games that went to overtime. There was the Feb. 9 road upset of No. 1 North Carolina in which Newman, a reserve guard, tied the game with a heave from near half court. There was the Elite Eight game against Utah, which saw the players and coaches so debilitated by a stomach virus that they didn't even go to the arena for shootaround. Toliver scored 28 points in that one.

And then there was the national title game against Duke, the Terps' longtime ACC nemesis. But we'll get to that.

Frese's first big-time recruit

The story really began three years earlier, when Doron, an Israeli-born guard who played her high school ball at Christ the King in New York, met Frese for the first time. Maryland was hardly on Doron's radar, but she quickly sensed the young coach was going to build something remarkable.

"I didn't want to be just another player in a great line of players. I wanted to do things my way," Doron recalls. "I didn't just want us to be good while I was there. I wanted Maryland to become a powerhouse, something lasting. Coach B and I both had that in mind from the beginning."

Doron became Frese's first big-time recruit, and Frese trusted her to lead the program, not just on the court but off.

"I wanted to make sure we were first and foremost, friends," says Doron on a call from Israel, where she plays professionally for Maccabi Ashdod. "Whether it was organizing team dinners or picking up someone who had a stomachache at 4 a.m., I would do anything."

With Doron, Maryland jumped from 10-18 to 18-13 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Terps grew more dangerous the next year as Frese added the inside duo of Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper.

Harper was a shot blocker with a goofy smile and bottomless energy. Langhorne, bolstered by a deep conviction she was the best player on the floor every night, hardly ever seemed to miss a shot. In fact, Langhorne was so good so often — "I saw her play one bad game … one," Harper says — that she was perhaps taken for granted.

The 2004-2005 team went 22-10, again reaching the second round of the tournament. Frese kept her pedal down on the recruiting trail, adding the perimeter firepower she needed in Toliver and Marissa Coleman, a versatile wing from the Washington suburbs.

"Coach B kept telling us it was a puzzle and that all the pieces just needed to come together," says Harper, now an assistant coach at High Point. "And we all bought into her vision."

Harper and Langhorne even attended Coleman's high school games, fostering a bond before the star recruit reached campus.

"Coach B's sincerity got us there," Coleman says. "People were so shocked that she got all these McDonald's All-Americans right away. But she was there at every one of our games, letting us know she wanted us."

With Newman and post defender Jade Perry lending depth from the bench, the 2005-2006 Terps were loaded by any measure. But perhaps because of their youth or because of the ACC dominance of Duke and North Carolina, they began the season No. 14 in the polls.

When they nearly toppled No. 2 Tennessee in an early-season tournament, the rest of the country began to wake up to what Frese had built.

"That's really where it hit us all that, man, we can do this," Coleman says on a call from Turkey, where she's playing professionally.

Something special brewing

But the team was still a work in progress, Frese says. She remembers Toliver ducking into her office and lamenting how out of sorts she felt in the college game. Opponents tried to throw the young point guard off by battering her physically, and she needed a few months to adjust. Coleman too needed time to build her self-belief.

There was little question, however, that Frese sensed something special brewing. When the Terps traveled to Boston College in early January, she took her team to TD Garden, where the Final Four would be played. She wanted the players to have a taste of what they could achieve.

Despite a few setbacks, most notably an 18-point home loss to Duke, the players developed an unshakable belief they would thrive in the most difficult circumstances.

That belief carried them through experiences such as the Utah game, before which some players needed IVs because they couldn't keep any food down. "I just remember how disgusting it was," Harper says. "It started with one of the cheerleaders, and I remember saying, 'Get her away from everyone! Just protect Kristi!' But it didn't help."

Toliver did her Michael Jordan imitation, playing brilliantly through the flu as Maryland again won in overtime.

The Terps next beat North Carolina in the national semifinals to set up a final showdown with Duke, a team that had haunted them like no other. The Blue Devils built a 10-point lead by halftime, business as usual in the lopsided rivalry.

The players had to walk by the Duke locker room at halftime and heard their rivals celebrating. "That made us angry," Doron says. "We were cursing at ourselves and them. But I want to thank them for that. It was what we needed."

Maryland's second-half rally set up Toliver for the shot that defines the program to this day. Frese didn't want the ball in any other hands. She expected every shot the freshman lofted to go in. And it was no different as the 5-foot-7 Toliver dribbled behind a screen, popped back and fired over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-7 Duke center Alison Bales. Frese's world went from silent as the ball spun through the air to deafening as it ripped the net.

To this day, strangers stop her in the airport to share their memories of the shot.

"Honestly, the memory in my mind is the shot went in and the game was over," Harper says. "But it wasn't."

No, the Terps still had to go and win another overtime. It's a testament to how confident they had become that no one even considered the possibility of losing after Toliver tied it.

Harper scored 40 points over the final two games and was named Most Outstanding Player, the happiest possible conclusion to her journey back from the torn Achilles tendon that cut short her freshman season.

"That was just perfect," Doron says. "Harp had been through so much. She couldn't even walk on her own or get her foot wet in the shower."

Given the sensational finishing run and the fact every key player would return, talk of a dynasty ensued. Frese and the players didn't exactly shy away from it.

"There's no manual to how you deal with that mindset," she says. "It was uncharted territory for all of us. [Athletic director] Debbie Yow tried to prepare me for, when you win it, so many new things take your time, and everyone is feeding your ego. But I can look back now and see how young I was."

She pulled Toliver from the starting lineup going into the Terps' NCAA tournament defense, an unsettling experience for the hero of 2006. Maryland went from preseason No. 1 to a shocking second-round loss to Mississippi State.

That was the end for Doron. "I wish I had another year with them," she says. "That was the most difficult thing. I didn't want our time to be over."

The Terps earned No. 1 seeds in 2008 and 2009, but fell in the Elite Eight each year. All five starters from the 2005-2006 team racked up individual honors and went on to pro careers. Toliver, Coleman and Langhorne still play in the WNBA and have made at least one All-Star team. With more money available from overseas clubs, the game has also taken them around the globe, from small towns in Russia to the glittering streets of Istanbul.

But as a group, they never regained the summit of 2006.

"It's bittersweet," Frese says. "You gain perspective on how hard it really is to get there."

She wouldn't return to a Final Four until 2014.

The sweetest part, Frese and the players agree, is that the championship team never lost its closeness.

Harper says her teammates were the best friends she ever made. She saw Langhorne last week and Coleman earlier in the fall. Once, when a flight deposited Doron at a desolate airport in rural Virginia, Harper was there to pick her up.

Doron shared dinners with Toliver when they both played in Russia. She calls Langhorne her best friend from college and is trying to convince Coleman to visit her in Israel.

"I still talk to every single one of those girls," Coleman attests.

All of them stop by College Park to talk to Frese's current players or have meals at Coach B's house. They're proud of what they built and what it has become.

Doron recently met 2015 Maryland graduate Laurin Mincy after a game in Israel. "Just let me know if you need anything," she told the younger player. "We're Terps. We're family."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/childswalker

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

Where are they now?

Starters on the 2006 national championship team:

Shay Doron: Picked in second round of 2007 WNBA draft, played briefly for New York Liberty. Has played professionally in Russia, Turkey and Romania and now plays for Maccabi Ashdod in her native Israel.

Kristi Toliver: Picked third overall in 2009 WNBA draft and has played seven seasons for the Chicago Sky and Los Angeles Sparks, making second-team All-WNBA in 2012. Also plays for powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia with Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner.

Marissa Coleman: Picked second overall in the 2009 WNBA draft and has played seven seasons for the Washington Mystics and Indiana Fever. Made 2015 WNBA All-Star Game and is now playing professionally in Istanbul. Plans to open Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Roanoke, Va.

Laura Harper: Picked 10th overall in 2008 WNBA draft and played in the WNBA, Russia and Turkey before injuries prompted her to retire. Serving as assistant coach at High Point after previous stints at Loyola and American.

Crystal Langhorne: Picked sixth overall in 2008 WNBA draft and has played eight seasons for the Washington Mystics and Seattle Storm, making two All-Star teams. Also plays professionally in Slovakia.

32°