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Maryland gaining look of contender

Shay Doron, one of the five upperclassmen on the Maryland women's basketball team, is outspoken and candid about the Terps' 14-1 record.

"We definitely should be undefeated, but we let one game slip away," the junior guard said, referring to the 80-75 loss to now-No. 1 Tennessee at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Nov. 26. "We didn't expect to lose to Tennessee. We're a confident team, and we know that we can play with the best of them. We proved that really early, and we've gotten a lot better since then."

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Added freshman forward Marissa Coleman: "Coming into the season, we had high expectations for us as a team, and we should be 15-0. But we're happy with a 14-1 record."

While it may sound like hubris, the Terps are backing it up, having won their 10th straight game with a 67-64 overtime defeat of No. 19 Boston College on Thursday. It is the program's longest winning streak since the 1991-92 season, when that team racked up 11 consecutive victories.

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Maryland will go for its 11th victory in a row when No. 2 Duke visits Comcast Center tomorrow at 1 p.m.

The Terps, ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll, have established themselves as an up-and-coming program and, in the minds of some national observers, a contender to reach the women's Final Four in Boston on April 2.

"They're a little bit inexperienced, but so was Baylor," ESPN broadcaster and 1996 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Nancy Lieberman said, referring to the 2005 national champion. "I think they could be a Final Four team. That's a very realistic goal."

Said College Sports TV national basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli: "I would say that with a capital yes. A lot of people picked them to be their surprise team. Not me. I expected them to be this good."

Oddly, Maryland had to play a game outside the continental United States to gain a national audience.

After routing Gonzaga and handling then-No. 9 Michigan State in the first two days of Paradise Jam, the then-10th-ranked Terps nearly pulled off a stunner against Tennessee, one of the best programs in the country.

Trailing by one point with 5.3 seconds left, Maryland had a chance to take the lead, but the inbounds pass was stolen and the Terps had to foul. Another inbounds pass went out of bounds and two more free throws cemented the win for the Lady Vols.

"I don't think there's any other better validation than how close they came to beating Tennessee," said ESPN broadcaster Beth Mowins. "If anyone doubted their level of play, I think that ended any discussion. That's the closest anyone has come to beating Tennessee."

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Lieberman said the key to Maryland's success has been its scoring power. The Terps are second in the nation in scoring average (87.5) and have five players averaging in double digits, Doron (16.7), Coleman (15.9), sophomore center Crystal Langhorne (15.8), sophomore forward Laura Harper (11.2) and sophomore guard Ashleigh Newman (10.3).

"They have a lot of balance," Lieberman said. "If you're a coach playing against them, it's hard to limit just one player because they have so many other players who can score."

The Terps are also impressive on defense, outscoring opponents by more than 30 points a game and winning the rebounding battle by almost 18 a game. Perhaps the only concern is the health of freshman point guard Kristi Toliver, whose absence from five games with a sore right shin forced Doron to move from shooting guard to the point.

But Toliver returned in Monday's 33-point win over Manhattan and played 21 minutes against Boston College. And as the team's point guard in Toliver's absence, Doron continued to average in double digits in points and averaged six assists, including one game with 10.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese is pleased with her team's fast start and even happier that the players share the ball and distribute points.

But as happy as she is about the Terps' rising status, Frese said the team's destiny is unmapped.

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"We don't want the Tennessee game to be our biggest highlight of the season," she said. "It's a steppingstone that gave the team a lot of confidence and let the team know that they can play with any team in the country. ... But we're just scratching the surface. We're continuing to progress every day, and we need to stay hungry. That's our mentality."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

No. 2 Duke@No. 6 Maryland Tomorrow, 1 p.m., Comcast SportsNet, 1300 AM



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