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Terps fans travel, die hard

Former Terps women's basketball players Marissa Coleman and Kim Rodgers sat quietly at a table in Looney's Bar and Pub on Route 1 in College Park as Sunday's Final Four game came to an end.

Maryland lost, 87-61, to undefeated Notre Dame at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville Sunday, ending an inspired run to the national semifinal. The Fighting Irish (37-0) dominated the Terps (28-7) and led by 17 at halftime, en route to their third championship appearance in four years. It was a sad ending for the fans — those in Maryland and others who watched in Tennessee.

But Rodgers, a Terp from 2007 through 2012, saw the silver lining in the 26-point loss to Notre Dame.

"They're such a young team and they did a nice job of recovering," she said. "For the players who come back next season, it will help them to carry a lot of confidence remembering how it felt to lose like this on such a big stage."

The whole bar applauded as senior Alyssa Thomas, the program's all-time leading scorer, walked off the court with minutes to go in her final game.

"She's one of the best players ever to come through Maryland," said 23-year old Nick Orban after the clapping subsided. "We can look back and say she had Maryland spirit. She played and she did well all four years."

Colin Smith, a junior marketing student, said the way Thomas played reflected well on the university.

"It's a shame she couldn't go out on top," Smith, 21, said. "She really did a lot for this school."

Sunday ended Maryland's breakout run from the No. 4 seed in the Louisville region. Along the way, Maryland defeated No. 13 Army, No. 5 Texas, No. 1 Tennessee and No. 3 Louisville — the last two in enemy territory — before running into Notre Dame, which beat its four prior opponents by an average of 26 points entering Sunday's semifinal.

Alec Jennison and Alex Steckroth said they hadn't been to a women's basketball game this season but would consider going next year, given the team's success.

"It's hard for women's basketball to get appreciation," Jennison, 19, said. "Them going this far will help the student body care about it more."

"It's good that they made it that far," the sophomore economics student said. "Final Four — you can't say that for our men's team."

Steckroth, 20, said the team impressed him with its wins against Tennessee and Louisville on the road.

"I didn't think we'd get this far to begin with," the junior marketing student said. "Making it to the Final Four is a bit of a surprise, so I can rest easy tonight."

Hundreds of Terps fans made the trip to Nashville for the game. The group descended on a Marriott hotel near Vanderbilt University, where they handed out stickers and pompoms and made signs for the players during a send-off event before the game Sunday afternoon.

Cheerleaders and drummers from the Mighty Sound of Maryland marching band led the group in a "Go Maryland" chant as the players high-fived fans and boarded the bus for the arena before the game.

Many more planned to be there, but they never made it to Tennessee.

Two American Airlines flights to Nashville from Reagan International Airport near Washington, D.C., Sunday afternoon were canceled due to a mechanical issue with the plane, leaving fans stranded.

Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman for the airline, said the company wasn't able to get the necessary airplane part immediately but did its best to make other arrangements for the 88 stranded passengers.

One fan who didn't arrive was university president Wallace Loh. The school said his flight was canceled due to mechanical problems and he was unable to get another flight that would make it to the game on time.

Some fans realized they couldn't make Sunday's game and rescheduled for Tuesday, gambling their travel plans on a Terps victory to take Maryland to a national championship, according to Katie Lowe, the Terrapin Club's director of strategic engagement and development.

Many who made the trip to Tennessee on time planned to stay through the Tuesday championship game, Lowe said, adding that the Terrapin Club had distributed more than 500 tickets to Maryland fans and alumni for the Final Four game Sunday night. Maryland quickly sold out its allotment of 500 tickets. An untold number of other fans obtained tickets for the sold-out game through various other means, including secondary ticket providers

It was easy to find Maryland fans inside Bridgestone Arena and on surrounding streets in a downtown tourist area filled with restaurants and bars, many featuring live country music.

There were splashes of Maryland red all around the 20,000-seat arena. A lower section directly across from the team's bench was filled almost entirely with Terps backers.

Notre Dame has been to four consecutive Final Fours and Connecticut, which was playing in Sunday night's late game, has been to seven straight. But this is Maryland's first trip since 2006 and — while its fans were clearly outnumbered on the streets by waves of blue-clad Connecticut supporters — Terps backers seemed particularly eager to see their team.

"We're first-time Final Four people," said Joyce Wellman, an artist from Washington, D.C., who flew into Nashville Saturday morning and participated in Sunday's send off.

Retired teacher Sharon MacKenzie got her ticket for a little over $100 from a friend and drove seven hours to the arena Sunday morning from her home Indian Land, S.C. She was wearing a red and white necklace and a red Maryland sweat shirt with a black "Final Four" T-shirt underneath.

MacKenzie, who played field hockey and lacrosse at Maryland between 1968 and 1972, said she knew she wanted to attend the game as soon as the Terps defeated Louisville in the Elite Eight on Tuesday night. "I was texting back and forth (with friends) after it was over," she said.

Another Maryland fan, John DeGreck of St. Louis, drove to Louisville for the regional final, where Maryland backers were a tiny minority on the Cardinals' home court and "it was the loudest I've ever heard it" at a Terps game, he said. He drove five hours from St. Louis to Nashville Sunday morning.

Maryland fans Kevin and Laura Sizemore didn't have to worry about travel. They are high school teachers in Nashville and were thrilled the team had come to their home city. "We don't get too many of their games down here," Laura said.

Maryland, which won the women's NCAA championship in 2006, not long after the men's team won the crown in 2002, is still building its women's basketball fan base, despite the program's recent success. Some fans see the women's team as the premier program in Comcast Center.

If the turnout at Looney's on a Sunday night was any indication, the support is growing.

"The ladies have been holding down Maryland basketball for the past five years," Daniel Johnson said.

Alex McGuire said the women's team is "overshadowing the men."

"They're carrying the athletic program," the 21-year-old journalism student said.

Laura Fabricius said the Terps' difficulty rebounding against the Fighting Irish was what did them in on Sunday. But she said the players had nothing to hang their heads about.

"They were awesome," said the 52-year-old, decked head to toe in Maryland attire, including a knit scarf patterned like the state flag. "They're my girls, baby!"

As the game came to an end, Robert Luftman, a groundskeeper at the university, smiled through his disappointment.

"They're just happy to be there," he said. "Nobody thought they would get this far."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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