Sweet victory for UM

The Baltimore Sun

College Park -- The Maryland women's basketball players and coaches said time and again in the run-up to last night's NCAA tournament second-round game against Nebraska that the residue from last year's early exit against Mississippi had long passed and that this year would be different.

Indeed, the collapse that nearly ended the Terps' quest for a second national title in three years last night would have been entirely different than the one that kept them from repeating last season, as Maryland nearly surrendered a 15-point first-half lead to the Cornhuskers, while they were never in last year's contest against the Rebels.

The Terps (32-3), the top seed in the Spokane Regional, shook off perhaps their worst shooting performance of the season to grab a 76-64 win over eighth-seeded Nebraska (21-12) to advance to Saturday's regional semifinal against Vanderbilt, the fourth seed.

The win before an announced 8,715 capped an unbeaten home season for Maryland and was its 21st win of the year at Comcast Center. All-American Crystal Langhorne had 18 points and 12 rebounds in her final home performance, but it was a pair of Maryland juniors, guard Kristi Toliver and forward Marissa Coleman, who bailed the Terps out of their funk.

Coleman had 13 of her 19 points in the second half, while Toliver had 19 points overall - 11 in the second half.

At the first television timeout in the second half, the five Maryland starters were shooting a combined 9-for-37, a far cry from the offense that is second in the nation in field-goal percentage.

Junior Marissa Coleman, who struggled through a 1-for-6 shooting performance in the first half, carried the Terps in the second half, scoring 13 of Maryland's 18 points in a desperate stretch where the Terps broke free after the Cornhuskers tied the score with just less than 15 minutes left on a three-pointer by Dominique Kelley.

Coleman then made a three-pointer from the left wing to give Maryland the lead back, then hit a 16-footer to trigger a 15-6 run to put the Terps ahead 60-51 with 8:59 remaining.

The Terps took an early 8-2 lead, then extended their advantage to seven at 19-12 on a pair of free throws by Laura Harper with 9:15 left in the first half. Nebraska, which committed three turnovers on its first four possessions, narrowed the gap to four, after freshman guard Kaitlyn Burke hit a jump shot when the shot clock appeared to run out. Maryland coach Brenda Frese protested the call and was whistled for a technical foul. Burke made one of two foul shots, and the Terps appeared to be in trouble.

From there, Maryland used eight free throws from Toliver, Langhorne and Coleman, as well as a layup from Jade Perry to give them some breathing room. Then, Ashleigh Newman, who had had a subpar senior season, extended a possession by diving to the floor for a loose ball, then made a three-pointer - Maryland's lone three of the first half - to give the Terps a 32-17 lead with 5:11 left.

However, the Cornhuskers' guards began to exploit Maryland's weakness - perimeter defense. Sophomore Yvonne Turner hit a pair of threes sandwiched around a driving basket, while fellow sophomore Nicole Neals drove past the Terps guards for a pair of scores in the final four minutes, part of a 16-2 run that got Nebraska to within one, with the ball, on the final possession of the half. Kelsey Griffin's layup attempt with three seconds left was blocked by Perry, and the Terps had a precarious one-point lead at the break.

The second round has historically been a stumbling block for the Maryland program. Before last March's loss to Mississippi, perhaps the most humiliating Terps tournament loss had come in a second-round game at Cole Field House in 1993, under then-coach Chris Weller.

Maryland, which received a first-round bye and a No. 2 seed that year, shot 67 percent from the field in a game against Southwest Missouri State but committed 26 turnovers in an 86-71 loss, made worse by the fact that 1,500 fans made the trip from Springfield, Mo., and out-cheered the Maryland crowd.

Under Frese, 12th-seeded Maryland advanced to the second round in 2004 but dropped lost, 76-61, to LSU in Baton Rouge, La. The next year, the Terps, who got a No. 7 seed, fell at Comcast Center to Ohio State, 75-65, in the second round to end Langhorne's freshman season.

In its national championship season, Maryland received an early scare in a second-round game against St. John's at Penn State, trailing the Red Storm with less than four minutes to play before pulling away to win, 81-74.

Last year's debacle against Mississippi, a team the Terps had beaten by 31 in the regular season, has resonated throughout this season, as the Maryland players and coaches have had to answer for their failure to repeat as champions, particularly with all five starters returning.

"I am excited about [last night's] game because I am tired about hearing the questions about last year," Frese said before the game. "I think this team is, as well. I think this team is going to come out with a mind-set that we're going to be inspired for 40 minutes."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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