ROCK HILL, S.C. -- Perhaps greater women's basketball games have taken place than the one Maryland and Virginia staged last night for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, but they have been rare indeed.
The Terps and Cavaliers played a heart-stopping, wildly improbable game with more plot twists than a Tom Clancy thriller.
After three hours and three overtimes, 22 ties and 21 lead changes, Virginia had claimed a 106-103 decision and its second straight ACC tournament championship.
"This is the best game I've ever been involved in," said Debbie Ryan, coach of 10th-ranked Virginia. "I had a feeling this would be a one- or two-pointer. Usually when Maryland and Virginia play, it's a great competition and a clean game. It just seemed like we were going to just keep going and going. I felt like the Eveready battery out there."
"No team has ever played harder through a tournament," coach Chris Weller said of her No. 12 Maryland team. "I told the players I think they had a huge success."
The tournament's most valuable player award went to Virginia guard Dena Evans, who hit a running three-pointer with 12 seconds left in regulation to force the first overtime at Winthrop Coliseum.
Then, when Charleata Beale missed her second free throw with 22 seconds remaining in the first overtime with Maryland ahead 79-77, Evans sneaked past a poor Terps box-out for the rebound and layup to force the second overtime.
Evans, who had 19 points, six assists and five rebounds, never left the floor through regulation or any of the overtimes, logging 55 minutes.
"Good things happen to teams that work hard, and we had to work hard tonight," said Evans.
Ryan said she also was a motivational force. "After the second overtime, Dena came to the bench with a look on her face, and I knew we were going to win," she said.
In all, six players from both teams fouled out in the longest and highest-scoring game in ACC women's tournament history and the longest in Maryland women's history.
However, Maryland's failure to capitalize on the disqualification of Virginia's twin towers, 6-foot-5 seniors Heather (in regulation) and Heidi Burge (in first overtime), led to its downfall.
Maryland center Jessie Hicks, who had 23 points before she fouledout with 2:38 left in the second overtime, said: "I just thought I could be more dominating, but it just didn't work out."
Said Maryland guard Katrina Colleton, who fouled out with 24 points: "It's a very helpless feeling. You're sitting there praying that they can pull it out. You have no control. It's the worst."
After the Burges fouled out, two Virginia freshmen, center Jeffra Gausepohl and guard Jenny Boucek, and sophomore Amy Lofstedt stepped forward, scoring all Virginia's points in the final overtime.
Gausepohl had 15 points, with all but one coming in the extra sessions and six foul shots in the last 43 seconds. Lofstedt, who had 18, went to work inside, leaving the perimeter game to Boucek, who had 15.
"To be able to count on two freshmen and one sophomore was really gratifying," said Ryan, whose Cavaliers shot 53 free throws (making 33) compared to 27 (18 made) for the Terps.
Maryland freshman guard Lena Patterson made an incredible bid for unlikely hero honors herself, with a three-point banker at the end of the second overtime to force the third overtime.
Patterson had not scored, and, for that matter, hadn't even taken a shot, until she banked a 20-footer off the glass at the buzzer.
Colleton, who had a shot rim out at the end of regulation, said: "It was like, 'Here we go again.' We were so excited, but we knew it wouldn't be easy."
"I was kind of in shock," said Evans, quipping: "She didn't call it, and I know she didn't intend to hit it off the glass."
No matter the circumstance, it did drop in and the Cavaliers (24-5) had to scratch out five more minutes. They led 104-101 with 17 seconds left, when Patterson sneaked in for an offensive rebound, hit the put-back and was fouled.
She missed the free throw that would have tied the game, forcing the Terps (22-7) to foul. Gausepohl sank her two foul shots to give Virginia its victory margin. Monica Bennett, who had a career-high 25 points, missed a three-point try at the buzzer that went too long.
As the Terps watched the Cavaliers accept the championship plaque, there were no dry eyes on their bench, including those of the usually stoic Weller.