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As Terps rally toward Final Four, they hope fans follow

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COLLEGE PARK — They had been traveling much of the night, but no matter. Hours after returning from a victory that sent them into the Final Four, Maryland's women's basketball players — giddy with fatigue and joy — stood on a balcony in the Stamp Student Union during Wednesday's lunch hour waving to fans and shooting silly videos.

The impromptu celebration was organized informally by the Terps themselves, using social media.

"We actually kind of made our own pep rally," senior guard Sequoia Austin said Thursday. "After [Tuesday night's victory over Louisville in the Elite Eight] we kind of had this idea that a lot of us didn't have class and we'd get out and meet at Stamp."

The players can be forgiven for taking the lead on their own celebration. They play before crowds that are devout but often fill only about a third of Comcast Center's seats.

But the women's game is growing. Sunday night's Final Four at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., is sold out. The arena seats just under 20,000 for basketball. The Terps (28-6) play Notre Dame (36-0) in the first game followed by Connecticut (38-0) against Stanford (33-3).

According to the NCAA, average attendance at the four just-completed regionals was 9,031 — second best in history. The best regional attendance mark was an average of 9,244 at the four sites in 2003.

The fourth-seeded Terps in particular are soaking up the sort of attention they have never before experienced.

As they left Comcast Center for their trip to Nashville on Thursday, they were greeted by university President Wallace Loh, the Maryland band, cheerleaders and a gathering of supporters. Band members formed two lines for players to walk between as they headed through a parking lot to the team bus that would take them to the airport.

Loh, who plans to attend the Final Four, briefly hopped on the bus and told head coach Brenda Frese: "Fantastic job you are doing."

He told reporters his message to players is "represent Maryland well and kick butt."

It's too soon to know how many Terps fans will travel to Nashville. Barbara Gold, a Maryland fan who lives near campus, traveled to Louisville, Ky., for the last two Terps games and said she was joined by "a couple hundred [Maryland fans]."

"I think more are going to Nashville," she said. "There are fans who drove from Louisville [direct] to Nashville."

Among those noticing women's basketball's increasing popularity is Taylor Branch, the Baltimore-based historian — and Terps women's basketball fan — who has written about college athletics.

"I hear people talking about the game in a way I didn't before," Branch said. "I love those Maryland Terps women. I've been following them."

Senior Alyssa Thomas, Maryland's career scoring leader, said the general public has begun to notice the sport's stars.

"I think in general that [former Baylor star] Brittney Griner, [former Notre Dame star] Skylar Diggins and all of them have just changed the game and made basketball more well known," Thomas said. "People are more excited to watch women's basketball than they ever have been. We've gotten a lot of new fans."

Increased television exposure and the growth of social media has contributed.

"There are so many games now that are televised in your regular season," Frese said. "There are a lot of programs now where administrations really support women's basketball. And the Internet and Twitter exposure has really increased over time."

In order to help them avoid distractions, Frese collected the players' phones and other electronics during their victories over No. 1 seed Tennessee and third-seeded Louisville. She plans to do the same thing in Nashville as Sunday's game draws near. The team is scheduled to practice Friday at a nearby university gym away from the Final Four crowds.

Once the players got their phones back after defeating Louisville, they began organizing Wednesday's student union rally. They used the video-sharing app Vine in attempt to get "everybod ybehind them screaming and yelling and acting crazy."

"It was Chloe [Pavlech]'s and Sequoia's idea," freshman guard Lexie Brown said. "They just put out a tweet — 'come make a 'Vine' and celebrate us making it to the Final Four.'"

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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