The Terps are better defensively, have more offensive options with the improvement of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood in the backcourt, and appear to be more confident.
All of those things, however, will only make last night's 78-72 loss to the Tar Heels in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal that much more heartbreaking, as the Terps squandered opportunity after opportunity to get a badly-needed signature win before they head out to defend their national title.
The Terps (27-5) eliminated nine- and 10-point second-half deficits against North Carolina, tying the game with two minutes to go. However, Maryland, which never led, was unable to close the deal, and left the Greensboro Coliseum without an ACC title for an 18th straight year.
"It was just, again, a Final Four game," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese. "That's what it felt like. We are disappointed, but I'm proud of the effort."
Maryland, the tournament's third seed, never let the second-seeded Tar Heels (29-3) get too far away. The Terrapins largely contained senior guard Ivory Latta, last season's ACC Player of the Year, limiting her to 19 points. That was a considerable improvement over the 32 she torched them for a month ago as she alternately taunted and silenced a sellout Comcast Center crowd.
However, the Terps continued to have problems stopping junior forward Erlana Larkins, especially on the boards, where she had a game-high 10 rebounds to go with her 12 points. Larkins, a two-time All-ACC first-team selection, helped get Maryland interior players Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper in foul trouble, as each had four personals.
"She [Larkins] is big, strong and physical and she's a really tough matchup for us inside," Frese said. "From a coaching end, it's tough when your two low-post players both pick up four quick fouls off of some loose-ball scrambles. But that's part of the game. You just have to learn and grow from it and be ready to play the next opportunity we get."
However, Larkins and Latta were hardly the only North Carolina players to hurt Maryland. Senior Camille Little had 11 points and six rebounds, while LaToya Pringle, a junior, had 11 points and four blocks - including a key deflection of a Shay Doron three-point try that would have cut the North Carolina lead to one with 35 seconds to go.
But the biggest contribution from the North Carolina supporting cast came from freshman Jessica Breland, who chipped in 14 points, including six straight points at one juncture of the second half, to keep Maryland at bay.
"Jessica was a McDonald's high school All-American," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "I've seen her play like she did [yesterday], and I knew she could play like that, so I wasn't really that surprised."
For a second straight tournament game, the Terps got physical, seeming content to match elbows and floor burns with the Tar Heels, one night after butting heads with Georgia Tech. While that approach worked in the first half against North Carolina, when the Terps went to the line 10 more times than the Tar Heels, it seemed to backfire in the second half, when North Carolina boasted a 17-3 advantage in free throws taken.
"They beat you up," said sophomore Marissa Coleman, who had a team-high 18 points and eight rebounds. "They pressure you and they make you feel uncomfortable on the offensive end. It's something that we have to get used to. It's going to come with practice. We just have to work harder in practice and pressure each other and it will come a lot easier when we play teams like Carolina and Duke with their pressure."
The Terps now will wait eight days to discover where they will open defense of their national title, having come short of a conference crown, something that has eluded them now for 18 years.
"It's tough finishing my career without one," said senior guard Shay Doron, who hurt her nose in the final two minutes diving for a loose ball. "But I'm looking at [the] big picture here, and if we had to lose [yesterday] to win another national championship, then that's going to be worth everything to me. Any loss, all of the losses we had this year, all of the losses we've had since I've been at Maryland, a national championship makes everything better."
MARYLAND-Harper 2-5 2-2 6, Langhorne 7-10 2-2 16, Toliver 5-10 0-0 12, Doron 4-10 3-4 13, Coleman 7-14 3-6 18, Wiley-Gatewood 1-5 0-0 3, Newman 0-1 0-0 0, Perry 1-2 2-2 4. Totals 27-57 12-16 72. NORTH CAROLINA-Larkins 6-10 0-1 12, Pringle 5-7 1-1 11, McCants 2-8 2-2 6, Latta 6-16 4-4 19, Little 3-10 3-4 11, Miller 0-3 3-4 3, Claytor 0-0 0-0 0, McFarland 1-1 0-0 2, Breland 5-6 3-4 14. Totals 28-61 16-20 78.
Half-North Carolina, 37-30. 3-point goals-Maryland 6-15 (Doron 2-3, Toliver 2-7, Wiley-Gatewood 1-2, Coleman 1-2, Newman 0-1), North Carolina 6-18 (Latta 3-7, Little 2-4, Breland 1-1, Miller 0-2, McCants 0-4). Fouled out-None. Rebounds-Maryland 30 (Coleman 8), North Carolina 34 (Larkins 10). Assists-Maryland 13 (Toliver 4), North Carolina 20 (Latta, Little 5). Total fouls-Maryland 22, North Carolina 19. A-11,538.