COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- This season could be a dramatic one fo the Maryland women's basketball team -- ranked No. 4 in the preseason Associated Press poll -- but only if the Terps have learned from the lessons of last season.
On the surface, it appeared that the record crowd of more than 14,500 that piled into Cole Field House last February to see the top-ranked Maryland women's basketball team take on second-ranked Virginia could only be a blessing for the Terps' program.
And, indeed, for the rest of the home schedule, Maryland averaged more than 3,300 fans per game, a clear improvement over anything it had previously drawn.
In reality, the crowd and the hype surrounding that game, along with the one-point loss that sent the Terps tumbling from No. 1, took their toll.
"That was the first time we had ever been ranked that high, and while some of us took the pressure in stride, the No. 1 thing got to us," said center Jessie Hicks. "A lot of people had a lot of high expectations in us, and we felt like we let them down."
"Last year, it was a hard thing to do to go from being unranked to the top as we did," Maryland coach Chris Weller said. "I think we got caught up in all the talk, and we started to feel a sense of obligation to our fans. We knew we were good, but we had so many new people. Then we got caught up in what other people thought of us."
The Terps, who won 20 of their first 21 games and looked unbeatable in early January, looked frightened by March, losing five of their last 10, including a one-point decision to unheralded Georgia Tech in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
This year, if No. 1 comes, the Terps believe they will handle it better because they've been through it before.
"Last year, we had high highs and low lows, but now we know what to expect," guard Malissa Boles said. "We know that if we get to No. 1, every team will want to play their best game against us, and we'll have to go to another level. We'll be ready for it."
Maryland appears well-armed to compete for a national championship, with nine returnees from last season and four players who started at least 10 games and powered that offense that shot .505 from the floor, third best in the nation.
Hicks and Boles have been named Street & Smith's preseason All-Americans, and the success of their inside/outside combination will be one of the major keys to whether the Terps make their first trip to the Final Four in four years.
Hicks, at 6 feet 4, led the ACC in blocks and field-goal percentage while averaging 14.5 points, and Boles, a 5-10 native of Milwaukee, played exemplary perimeter defense and averaged 13.6 points.
The other two starters, junior forward Michele Andrew and senior guard/forward Katrina Colleton, will be a part of Weller's grand experiment to replace Limor Mizrachi, last season's starting point guard.
Mizrachi, an Israeli native, elected not to return to the United States this season. In addition, Mizrachi's backup, senior Estelle Christy, also left, returning home to Bridgeport, Conn. Mizrachi and Christy not only made off with Maryland's point guard experience, but most of their outside shooting. Maryland took fewer three-point attempts (113) than any other team in the ACC, and Mizrachi and Christy took 98 of those shots.
Weller will start this season gambling that Colleton, a 5-10 Tampa, Fla., native who made Weller's Jones Cup team with Boles, can play the point, and that Andrew, a 6-1 Finnish import who was fourth on the team in scoring last year, can move to the wing and play small forward. That would put 6-4 junior reserve forward Monica Adams into the starting lineup.
If those gambles don't pay off, Weller will be forced to move Adams back to the bench, the quicker but less physical Andrew back to power forward, and Colleton, the team's most versatile player, to small forward.
The point guard would then be either senior Monica Bennett, who has seen little action in her three seasons, or sophomore Karon Ferguson, who has earned a reputation as a good defender and drew the start in last week's final preseason game against the Hungarian national team.
The other potential starter at point guard would be highly touted freshman Lena Patterson of Seabrook's Elizabeth Seton High, who played impressively in the second half of that preseason game.
Maryland will have decent depth in the frontcourt with junior Bonnie Rimkus, who was the ACC Rookie of the Year two years ago, and sophomore Kesha Camper able to provide quality minutes in place of Hicks, Andrew and Adams.
If the Terps are to be nationally competitive and reach the Final Four in Atlanta, they will have to earn it against one of the nation's most difficult schedules.
In addition to the usual rigorous ACC schedule, which will include strong challenges from Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Clemson, Maryland will play host to perennial power Iowa, Miami (Fla.) and possibly Tennessee in the finals of their holiday tournament. The Terps also will face Purdue in a nationally televised game in January.
"With the schedule we have," Boles said, "there will be a lot of big games and a lot of chances for us to see how good we are."
NEXT: Area's other Division I women's basketball.
Maryland women at a glance
Coach: Chris Weller (18th season, 353-145)
Affiliation: Atlantic Coast Conference
1991-92 record: 25-6, 13-3 in ACC
Starters lost: Forward Dafne Lee, the third-leading scorer and rebounder, and point guard Limor Mizrachi, the fifth-leading scorer and principal outside shooter.
Outlook: With nine players returning from last year's Mideast Regional runner-up, Maryland is well-positioned to make a run at the Final Four and the national championship, the only achievement to elude Weller in her stellar career. The Terps are ++ especially strong up front with senior center Jessie Hicks and junior forward Michele Andrew among the quickest frontcourts in women's basketball. Guard Malissa Boles and guard/forward Katrina Colleton gained confidence playing internationally for Weller this summer. If freshman Lena Patterson or sophomore Karon Ferguson develop into quality point guards and their schedule doesn't kill them, the Terps could win it all.
Name Yr. Pos. Ht. Fast breaks
Monica Adams Jr. C 6-3 Rapidly improving, could become starter
Michele Andrew Jr. F 6-2 Becoming more accustomed to physical play
Monica Bennett Sr. G 5-7 Can play either backcourt position
Malissa Boles Sr. G/F 5-10 Could be nation's best shooting guard
Kesha Camper So. F 6-0 Frontcourt reserve
Katrina Colleton Sr. G/F 5-11 Most versatile Terp; can play three spots
Karon Ferguson So. G 5-5 Could challenge for point-guard slot
Jessie Hicks Sr. C 6-4 Leading ACC shot-blocker
Bonnie Rimkus Jr. C 6-4 ACC Rookie of the Year two years ago
Lena Patterson Fr. G 5-5 Played well in preseason
Dawn Sloan Fr. G 5-9 26 ppg., 7.2 rpg. in high school