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Not matching up

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- -- Rules sometimes change, an athlete's body ages and momentum can be fickle, but numbers are supposed to be the one consistent truth in sports. That's not how I felt yesterday, though. It's not that the numbers at Comcast Center were lying exactly, but they also weren't very precise.

The Maryland women's basketball team opened NCAA tournament play and didn't look like a No. 1 seed.

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Similarly, its opponent, Coppin State, looked nothing like a No. 16.

The Terps, 80-66 winners over the Eagles, have plenty of time to reaffirm their tournament slot, and we'll get to their lackluster showing in a bit. The Eagles, though, despite a valiant effort and tremendous guard play, lost before yesterday's game even tipped off. They lost six days earlier when the tournament's selection committee chose convenience over fairness.

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Coppin coach Derek Brown wasn't looking for excuses after his team's tough loss; I asked the question, he answered it honestly. "I definitely didn't feel that we deserved a 16 seed this year," he said.

"To draw the 16 seed, I feel that it was a matter of economics and a matter of mileage," Brown said. "We're 16, Maryland's 1, we'll come down here. If Maryland was 2, we'd probably be 15 and we'd come down here. I understand that."

This isn't to imply that the Eagles would've beaten any No. 2 seed, but there was something else that was lost in this seeding slip - that bit of magic that makes March special for all 64 teams. Coppin didn't spend a single night in a hotel room. The Eagles didn't have dinner on the road in a host city. They piled in a bus before yesterday's game, drove to College Park, and, when it was over, they were immediately back on Interstate 95, headed home to Baltimore.

"Our kids didn't get the full effect of the NCAA, playing so close to home," Brown said. "They were telling a couple of people yesterday that it was just like a nonconference game."

Anyone who saw Coppin yesterday, making Maryland sweat just to reach the second round, realizes the Eagles weren't a typical No. 16 seed. They played better than that, because they are better than that.

The Terps, meanwhile, posted a first-round performance that won't likely cut it as the tournament progresses. Despite what the Terps said afterward, the game against Coppin was too competitive for comfort.

"I don't think we were ever worried about being in danger," junior Marissa Coleman said. Maybe not, but they should be worried about whether such a performance will be enough against a Connecticut or a Stanford - or, more urgently, against Nebraska tomorrow night.

Coppin had more field goals, fewer turnovers, more points off turnovers and more fast-break points. In fact, if Maryland didn't have the benefit of 35 free-throw attempts - compared with Coppin's 16 - we would be talking about a totally different game. And as much as the Terps talk about defensive intensity, it barely surfaced yesterday. "We just lost some focus and some intensity," coach Brenda Frese said of the Terps' defense, which picked up noticeably in the second half.

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Coppin senior guards Shalamar Oakley and Rashida Suber repeatedly found open looks at the basket. They finished with a combined 45 points, but at one point the two had accounted for 30 of Coppin's first 32 points. Put simply, for 40 minutes, neither of the two best guards was wearing a Maryland uniform.

"These two ladies here," Brown said after the game, seated next to Oakley and Suber, "I'd put them up against anybody in the country."

Even if Coppin deserved better than a No. 16 seed, a team with Final Four hopes shouldn't have struggled as much as the Terps did. The Eagles led by as many as five points midway through the first half, which said as much about Maryland as it did about Coppin.

To get an idea of the separation that naturally exists between the Atlantic Coast Conference power and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school: The last time the two schools played was December 2005, a game the Terps won, 69-38.

In fact, Maryland has won all 11 games between the schools, and after eight annual meetings, Coppin's Brown canceled the series in 2006 because he didn't think his players were getting enough out of the annual stompings. "They're going to wear you down with talent," is how Brown described Maryland yesterday.

And talent-wise, Maryland is definitely a No. 1 seed in this tournament. They have the players to reach the championship game in Tampa, Fla. But talent alone will get you only so far in a tournament that gets progressively harder each round.

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Beginning tomorrow, effort and performance will have to match talent.

Coppin's tournament is finished. Despite losing, the Eagles showed they were undeserving of their seed. Fortunately for Maryland, the Terps have more time to show that they're deserving of theirs.

rick.maese@baltsun.com



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