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Terps women to gain experience if not wins; Maryland hopes to make most of tournament draw; Duke has point to prove


Despite the certainties after three months of a college basketball season, there are always questions when the teams begin postseason play. For the Atlantic Coast Conference women, the tournament that begins tomorrow in Charlotte, N.C., has several intriguing story lines.

Will Maryland make the most of a generous draw featuring tomorrow night's game against Wake Forest and a possible matchup against Virginia, a team it has played with confidence? Will North Carolina State play well enough to make it back to the Final Four? Will Duke make a statement that will help it finally live down this season's embarrassing start?

Maryland got its only road win of the season against the Demon Deacons on Feb. 6 and played the Cavaliers tough in both meetings. The reality, though, is that the Terps' season is likely to end well before the championship game is played Monday night.

"We're not very experienced going down there," said coach Chris Weller, whose team has seven newcomers. "We plan to stay, win or lose, because we want to know what this experience is all about."

Despite Maryland's 6-20 record and a 3-13 league mark, Weller is apparently returning for another year at Maryland, according to news reports yesterday.

Pat Nicol, former senior women's administrator and key player in the fate of Weller over the past two seasons, recently said the veteran coach should be retained.

"Without question, that was my recommendation when I left," said Nicol, who left Maryland late last year for an assistant athletic director's position at Southern Connecticut State. "Given her success and what she has brought to the University of Maryland, I believe in loyalty and I would like to see her follow through with this recruiting class."

The teams expected to contend in this tournament and beyond are Duke, Virginia, Clemson and North Carolina, the defending tournament champ featuring Nikki Teasley (St. John's at Prospect Hall) and Chanel Wright (Western). But will the ACC get a fifth team into the NCAA tournament?

It isn't assured, even if that team is N.C. State, a Final Four team last year. The Wolfpack, led by ACC Player of the Year candidate Summer Erb, struggled to a 3-5 record in the first month of the season. While some of the losses were to highly regarded foes like Old Dominion, Penn State and Clemson, N.C. State also let an ugly one slip in against New Orleans.

Since the return of guard Kristen Gillespie, though, the Wolfpack has bolstered its case by winning seven of the last 10 games, including a road win over North Carolina. Another win would help.

"I don't assume anything," N.C. State coach Kay Yow said. "I know that I have a team that deserves to compete in the NCAAs. What other people will decide, I don't know. I'm banking on the great stretch we had in February. If we can win a game, it would help our cause."

Another team for whom this weekend is vital is Duke, which won the regular-season title with a 15-1 record. The blemish -- against Clemson on Feb. 14 -- was the only loss for the Blue Devils since falling to Tennessee on Dec. 6.

But what can they do in March?

In spite of a second straight ACC crown, there is a skepticism that surrounds Duke's 23-5 record, reflected in a No. 8 national ranking despite one of the best ACC records of all-time. The league -- ranked fifth in RPI -- is seen as having a down year, and the Blue Devils started the season by going 1-4 against the nation's elite, a start that still haunts them.

"Everyone in America saw our game against Connecticut," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said of the season opener, a 30-point loss. "It was an embarrassment. That, more than anything, sticks with people."

Duke can reverse that perception by winning three games over the weekend. It would provide an improved shot at a No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament pairings are announced March 7.

ACC women's tournament

When: Tomorrow-Monday

Where: Independence Arena, Charlotte, N.C.

TV: Semifinals and championship game on HTS

Radio: Maryland games on WMUC (650 AM and 88.1 FM) and over the Internet at www.wmuc.umd.edu

Defending champion: North Carolina Favorite: Duke (regular-season champs the past two seasons, and winners of 18 of its past 19 games)

Dark horse: Clemson (tournament finalist in '98; only team to defeat Duke in '99) MVP candidate: Summer Erb, North Carolina State, the lumbering but multi-talented player who led the league in scoring and rebounding. Duke's Michele VanGorp will probably win ACC Player of the Year honors. Pub Date: 2/25/99

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