Loss fuels UM's victory push

The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK -- A program that has four Final Four appearances and a national championship admittedly hasn't had many bad days, but the one the Maryland women's basketball team suffered 368 days ago in last season's NCAA tournament was a doozy.

The Terps' 89-78 loss to Mississippi in the second round marked them as the quickest defending champion to get eliminated from the next year's tournament.

It also cast a pall over their 2006 title by extension because all five starters from the championship team returned.

This year, ranked fifth in the country and with a No. 1 seed in the Spokane (Wash.) Regional, Maryland prepares to open tournament play today against No. 16 seed Coppin State (22-11), attempting to turn the pain of last season's loss into fuel for this year's run.

"We put all that behind us," junior point guard Kristi Toliver said of the Mississippi loss.

"We still remember it. We watched film on it last week. But I think this year, we're looking forward. We've been pretty positive.

"Why would you think about something like that going into a tournament like this when it's one and done? We know what's at stake and what's on the line."

The Terps (30-3), who were given a top seed over Pacific-10 champion Stanford, are making a push for this year's championship after playing a rugged schedule that included 13 wins over teams in this year's NCAA tournament field. Maryland also went 13-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season, which tied for the best conference run in school history.

Leading the nation in field-goal percentage and second in scoring, the Terps enter the tournament having won eight of their past nine games.

A 74-63 setback to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinal two weeks ago was their only loss since late January.

Maryland has the benefit of playing today's game at home, where they are unbeaten this season and undefeated against nonconference opponents since their 2005 second-round loss to Ohio State, a streak that covers 30 games.

If they beat Coppin, the Terps will meet the winner of the Nebraska-Xavier contest Tuesday night, again at home.

"To have that time [since the Duke game] to focus and rejuvenate ourselves through such a tough season with the amount of games we've played has been phenomenal for us for the tournament," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said.

In a broader sense, however, the Maryland players are aiming to make themselves a part of history. Since Stanford won its second title in three years in 1992, no school has won a second title in that span besides Tennessee and Connecticut, both of which won three straight.

Of the six other teams -- Texas Tech (1993), North Carolina (1994), Purdue (1999), Notre Dame (2001), Baylor (2005) and Maryland (2006) -- that captured the championship since 1992, only Purdue was able to return to the Final Four within two years of winning the title, losing to Notre Dame in the 2001 final.

Given their early exit last year, and finishing as runners-up to North Carolina in the ACC, the Terps have been criticized in women's basketball circles as having more style than substance.

Their No. 1 seed this year surprised some observers, namely ESPN analysts Stacey Dales and Kara Lawson, both of whom said on Monday's selection show that LSU deserved a top seed ahead of Maryland, despite the fact that the Terps beat the Tigers this season.

"Obviously, people think that what we did last year was the real Maryland team, because there are so many people saying '06 was a fluke," senior center Laura Harper said. "That's something that we want to change and show we are a good team, we can be consistent and we can be steady."

With four starters and six players still on the roster from two seasons ago, the Terps have a chance in this tournament to show they are something more than a team that caught fire at the right time.

"I think this year will be the deciding year on where Maryland basketball is as a whole," junior forward Marissa Coleman said. "It's going to depend on how well we do this year. [If the Terps win a title this year], we will have accomplished something that not too many teams do.

"Winning two titles in the span of three years will be extremely difficult and tough. We definitely would have to be named among the greats."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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