BOSTON — BOSTON -- If you've ever watched a basketball game in College Park, you know the passions of Maryland fans are most stoked, in recent years, when that certain team from Durham, N.C., comes into Comcast Center, wearing royal blue and carrying a load of swagger.
So, it's somehow fitting that for the Maryland women's team to earn its first national championship, the path goes through Duke in tonight's title game at TD Banknorth Garden.
That Duke, as it has been on the men's side, is the standard bearer in Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball in the past decade - winning five straight league tournament titles at one point and making four Final Four trips - only adds to the intensity of tonight's contest.
"Duke has set the bar in our league," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "They were the ones winning the titles, winning the championship, and because of it, they have made us all a lot better and have made this Maryland team have to step up and play at an amazingly high level as well."
Beyond their mastery of the league, the Blue Devils (31-3) have cast a spell on Maryland with a 14-game winning streak over the Terps that had dated to January 2001. That is, until Maryland beat Duke, 78-70, in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals last month, breaking the Blue Devils' hegemony, and giving the Terps a sense they belonged on the same floor with Duke.
"That's exactly what I said when we finally beat Duke: 'The monkey is off our back,'" Maryland center Crystal Langhorne said. "It was really tough playing Duke. They constantly beat us. We finally got that win off them, and I think that, mentally, that fear against Duke is just gone."
Said Maryland guard Shay Doron: "It's fitting, but they have to go through us as well. It kind of goes both ways. The rivalry between us hasn't been great, because they've just been better. Now, the tides are not turning, but they're definitely even right now. The next few years, I don't know how Duke's going to be, or us, but the tides are definitely even right now. This could become one of the best rivalries in college basketball."
This year's Duke-Maryland games have, in a sense, shown the evolution of the rivalry between the two schools. The Blue Devils trounced the Terps, 86-68, in College Park in January, before more than 16,000, dominating on both ends of the floor, as they shot 58 percent from the field and forced 24 Maryland turnovers.
In the rematch, the Terps (33-4) got out of the blocks swiftly, taking an eight-point lead into the locker room at halftime, before Duke whittled the lead down, then used an 11-0 run to take control, handing Maryland a 90-80 loss four days after the Terps beat then top-ranked and unbeaten North Carolina in overtime.
In Round 3, in the ACC tournament, the Terps once again took a big lead, a 53-38 advantage in the second half, before Duke stormed back to score 16 straight points and take a one-point lead and appear to continue the pattern of quashing Maryland, mentally and physically.
That time, however, the Terps responded as their front court of Langhorne and Laura Harper scored quickly to give Maryland back the lead, as well as some pride.
"I think this is very fitting," Harper said. "We've lost to Duke countless times. I think I've watched 14 losses since I've been here. Almost. It's going to be a revenge thing in the ACC. They've exploited us in the past and I just think, now like Shay said earlier, we're a better team. We're equally on level with them, and it's going to be a very good game."
Said Duke guard Lindsey Harding: "It just shows how good Maryland is. The first time we did play them, we did win significantly, but I knew that they were going to come back and come back stronger. We just can't sleep on them. We have to play hard. I have a lot of respect for them and their program. And it's going to be a hard-fought battle."
The Blue Devils seem to have shaken off whatever psychic residue was left near the end of the season, when they lost two of three heading into the NCAA tournament. Duke has won its five tournament games by an average of 29.8 points, blowing out quality opponents such as Michigan State, last year's national runner-up, and LSU in Sunday's national semifinal.
"Right now, I think we're in a really good place," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "Even before the game [Sunday], in the locker room while we were talking, you could just sense a very quiet confidence. And it was good to see. And I thought we started off real well."
Still, with Sunday's 81-70 win over top-ranked North Carolina, the Terps enter a meeting against Duke with a sense of swagger. Of course, they went to Durham in February similarly positioned, only to come out with a loss. Their belief for tonight is that two months and a change of locale, with some significant hardware at stake, might make for a different result.
"I think that it's no longer a thing that we really dread playing or we kind of get nervous or anything," said Harper, who had 24 points in the win over North Carolina on Sunday. "I think it's just another ACC game that we prepare ourselves to play. I think that beating them in the ACC tournament definitely gave us the confidence to know that we can compete with them, we can compete with anyone."
Tonight's national championship
Maryland (33-4) vs. Duke (31-3)
Site -- TD Banknorth Garden, Boston
Time -- 8:30
TV/Radio -- ESPN/1090 AM
Key matchup -- Duke's frontcourt of 6-foot-7 junior C Alison Bales, 6-3 senior F Mistie Williams and 6-0 senior G-F Monique Currie has presented difficult challenges for Maryland's 6-4 sophomore F Laura Harper, 6-2 sophomore C Crystal Langhorne and 6-0 freshman F Marissa Coleman in three previous meetings this year. Currie, an All-American and a near-certain top-five pick in tomorrow's WNBA draft, had a then-career-high 31 points in the February game at Durham. Williams and Bales helped Duke out-rebound Maryland in two of the three games. The X-factor could be the front-line benches. Maryland F Jade Perry and C Aurelie Noirez will provide bulk for the Terps, but Duke C Chante Black got to Maryland for 19 points in the Blue Devils' January win in College Park.
Outlook -- Maryland's 78-70 win over Duke in the ACC tournament semifinal might have gone a long way toward removing whatever psychological edge the Blue Devils had, with 14 consecutive wins previously over the Terps. Still, Maryland will have its hands full with women's college basketball's most balanced team from top to bottom. The Blue Devils are not only strong up front, but they also shoot 39 percent from three-point range. Maryland G Kristi Toliver, who did an impressive defensive job on North Carolina G Ivory Latta, despite 12 turnovers Sunday, will have to have a similar defensive effort against Duke G Lindsey Harding, the Blue Devils' emotional linchpin.