SPOKANE, Wash.-- --In March, every senior feels it. By this point, it's as much a fear as it is a reality. But Crystal Langhorne never even let on.
Sure, it crossed her mind before the game, but there wasn't a single second last night anyone in Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena could have thought that Langhorne might be playing her final game. Langhorne was prepared to single-handedly carry the Maryland women's basketball team to victory over Vanderbilt, even though she didn't really have to. There were plenty of willing contributors in last night's win in the NCAA tournament's regional semifinal.
As she has been throughout the postseason, Langhorne was the most reliable and consistent Terp, ensuring that her career will extend at least a couple of more days. With last night's 80-66 win, the Terps will face the winner of last night's Pittsburgh-Stanford contest.
If they're capable of cutting and pasting last night's performance into tomorrow's time slot, a trip to the Final Four in Tampa, Fla., might be on the horizon. After opening the NCAA tournament with a pair of lackluster wins on their home court, the Terps finally played with a sense of purpose, with an energy they seem to keep in their back pocket until the right opponent forces them to pull it out.
Langhorne set the tone last night, powering through double teams, providing a big, inviting target for point guard Kristi Toliver and always in the perfect spot beneath the hoop. Her court sense is spot on - you could calibrate Global Positioning System settings by her positioning in the paint.
She's as big a reason as any that her point guard boasted, "I felt like Tom Brady."
"Everybody was just connecting," said Toliver, who can credit Langhorne for four of her eight assists last night. "We had great chemistry."
Langhorne's 28 points marked the second most she has scored this season, and her 12 field goals were a season high. The fact that such big totals are coming in the postseason is really no surprise.
"Crystal's obviously our go-to player," coach Brenda Frese said. "The fact that any pass you throw in there, she's going to catch. And I thought really, as physical as it was inside, she was able to make so many plays."
While the Terps created a few extra obstacles for themselves in their first two tournament games, Langhorne has been a steadying force. She scored 25 and 18 in the previous two games, grabbing 12 rebounds in each - a stark contrast with last year's tournament, in which Langhorne scored just 12 and 14 points in the Terps' two tournament games.
It's not that there's an added incentive this year. The idea of a college career coming to an end is how a young person confronts her athletic mortality. Fear easily channels itself into motivation.
"You can't help but think about it being a senior. ... Any game could be our last," Langhorne said last night. "We just want to go out and play hard every minute we're out there because you never know when it's going to be your last few plays."
Langhorne was one of four starters to play at least 35 minutes last night. Though the Terps' bench contributed only one point, the starting five showed just how many weapons a team can squeeze on the court at any one time. Toliver didn't even attempt a shot until only 18 seconds remained in the first half. She didn't need to. Marah Strickland (Towson Catholic) - Maryland's fifth Beatle - finished with 13 points. Not bad when you consider she scored just three total in the two previous games. In fact, she had three three-pointers against the Commodores, after going three straight games without one.
The Commodores, one of the better defensive teams remaining in the tournament, allowed themselves to get sucked into a pace they couldn't maintain. The Terps had 44 points at the half. While that isn't especially out-of-the-norm for Maryland, in the Commodores' previous four games, their opponents posted scores of 44, 48, 47 and 46 - for the entire 40 minutes, not just one half. (In fact, before last night, only two teams scored 80 or more points against Vanderbilt this season - Tennessee and Old Dominion, both of whom are still alive in the tournament.)
The Terps held true to their word last night - they were a looser team last night, visibly enjoying themselves on the court. It's a reassuring sign because the brand of inspired play the Terps exhibited last night is the key to lengthening Langhorne's career, to eventually punching this team's ticket to Tampa.
At some point, Langhorne will have to take off her jersey a final time. She realizes that. She just hopes to do it on her terms.