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Terps looking to 'crash the party' at women's basketball Final Four

Maryland revels in chance to prevent first-ever matchup of two unbeaten teams in NCAA final

By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

7:58 PM EDT, April 5, 2014

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the day before the women's Final Four, commentators and fans inside Bridgestone Arena used words like "epic" and "historic" to describe an almost irresistible championship game matchup of unbeaten teams to rival college football's 1971 "game of the century" between Oklahoma and Nebraska.

The scenario's only problem is that this behemoth of a game — a certain ratings blockbuster as Connecticut and Notre Dame seek to complete perfect seasons in Tuesday night's finals — is not preordained. Notre Dame (36-0) must first get past Maryland (28-6) in Sunday night's semifinals, and Connecticut (38-0) must eliminate Stanford (33-3).

As they signed autographs and held open practices at the 20,000-seat arena, neither the No. 4 seed Terps nor the No. 2 seed Cardinal seemed in the mood to be mere props for two elite top seeds.

"To some extent, I feel like Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss USA pageant," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "Everybody's rooting for the other two. Our job is to be able to crash the party."

From the nature of the questions posed by the media, Maryland players couldn't help but notice that the script already seems written — and that they have been edited out by the end.

"Everybody knows that's what everybody wants," Maryland freshman guard Lexie Brown said of a Connecticut-Notre Dame final.

Said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, speaking of both the Cardinal and Terps: "If we're going to be someone's hors d'oeuvres, we're not going to get swallowed easily."

ESPN, which is broadcasting the games, picked Saturday to announce in a press release that "national powerhouses" Connecticut and Notre Dame will play next season in the Jimmy V Women's Classic on Dec. 6. It would clearly help ratings if the contest in South Bend, Ind., can be billed as a rematch of the national championship game.

The women's title game has never before featured two unbeaten teams.

"When was the last time we had the potential in a Final Four to do something that has never been done?" said former Connecticut and WNBA star Rebecca Lobo, now an ESPN analyst. " So, of course, on the outside that is the biggest story that could possibly be. It would draw the highest rating, it would bring the most eyeballs to watch the game. It's a really compelling story. Does that mean it's going to happen? Not necessarily."

Maryland didn't really seem to mind being slighted.

"We'll roll with the party crashers. There's no pressure," Brown said.

Brown and her teammates signed autographs for hundreds of fans before holding an open practice. They later retreated to Tennessee State for a more serious practice away from the public.

Maryland's day seemed to be about trying to eliminate pressure and distractions. Frese planned to collect players' cellphones and other electronics, as she had earlier in the tournament.

Senior forward Alyssa Thomas, Maryland's career scoring leader, was trying to enjoy her first Final Four along with her parents.

"She knows there is no pressure from us," said Bob Thomas, Alyssa's father, who drove here from Harrisburg, Pa. "It's just, 'Have fun.'"

As Alyssa Thomas signed autographs and posed for pictures in the arena concourse, her mother, Tina, joined the autograph seekers' line before smiling and giving her daughter a bearhug.

Helping the Terps relax were former Maryland stars Kristi Toliver and Laura Harper, who both flew in for the game. Frese's father, Bill, and other family members drove here from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The relatives and former players played and joked with Frese's twin 6-year-old boys, Tyler and Markus, who had their faces painted for the occasion.

"It's really tough to hear all this publicity for the Notre Dames and Connecticuts," said Harper, now an assistant with Loyola Maryland's women's program. "They're great teams. But we're here, too. They're no definites in the final."

Being undefeated may draw fans and television cameras, but it can be a burden. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has often been asked about the perfect record and a potential showdown with the Huskies. The teams didn't play in the regular season.

"We know we can't get to a national championship until we win the first game," McGraw said in response to one such question Saturday.

Maryland has already been a spoiler once in this tournament. The fourth-seeded Terps defeated third-seeded Louisville in the regional final on the Cardinals' home floor.

During the Louisville regional, Frese — who allowed ESPN cameras to record her pregame speech — told her players: "They will know your name!" Team insiders say the idea originated partly from some Louisville history. Boxer Muhammad Ali, who is from Louisville, famously shouted, "What's my name?" in the ring to opponent Ernie Terrell, who had refused to recognize that Ali had changed his name from Cassius Clay.

ESPN analyst Doris Burke said Maryland announced its presence in its 76-73 victory in the Louisville regional final. Burke said the Terps have the potential to flip the anticipated Final Four script.

"Not only was it packed [in Louisville], it was extremely loud," Burke said. "This is a [Maryland] team that can walk out of here with a national championship, and I know Brenda [Frese] doesn't want me to say that. But the fact of the matter is, the more you watch Maryland, they could win this."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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