A look in the mirror

The Baltimore Sun

SPOKANE, Wash. -- As they approach tonight's Spokane Regional final and a possible berth in the women's NCAA Final Four, Maryland and Stanford, the top two seeds, bring to the contest virtual mirror images of each other.

The Terps and the Cardinal enter the game with identical 33-3 records, strong inside-outside games, impressive performances in Saturday's regional semifinals and the requisite healthy respect for each other.

Where the teams' opinions differ is on who should be wearing the white uniforms as the higher seed. When the bracket was unveiled two weeks ago, a national audience got to see the Maryland players rejoicing at the school's second No. 1 seed, while the Stanford players, who captured the Pacific-10 regular-season and tournament titles were sullen over being second.

Two weeks later, the Cardinal, winner of 21 straight, claims to have overcome the hurt it felt on Selection Monday.

"It really comes down to this game," Stanford senior All-American Candice Wiggins said. "We can't talk about it. We can't say we should be this or that. This is the game that's going to prove that. So I think that as a team, we're really focused, we're excited about this and we're just going to play the best game we can."

Maryland, meanwhile, two years removed from a national title, isn't letting Stanford own the Rodney Dangerfield outlook entirely. The Terps feel they are more deserving of a No. 1 seed than they have been given credit for, and want to use tonight as an opportunity to show they belong among the nation's elite.

"Our team always loves being an underdog, and I know Stanford wasn't happy about getting the two seed," Maryland senior All-American Crystal Langhorne said. "But a lot of people still don't think we deserve it and we want to prove a lot of people wrong."

Maryland figures to have its hands full defensively with Stanford's interior of Jayne Appel, a 6-foot-4 center with a good outside touch, and 6-4 freshman forward Kayla Pedersen.

However, the Terps' principal concern on defense will be Wiggins, a 5-11 guard who averages 19.8 points and who scored 44 in a second-round win over Texas-El Paso. Three players - junior Marissa Coleman, senior Ashleigh Newman and freshman Marah Strickland - are all likely to take a turn defending Wiggins, a three-time Pac-10 Player of the Year.

"It's going to be a big challenge for all the guards, not just Marah or me," Coleman said. "She's a great player. You are not going to hold her scoreless. She's that good of a player. You can contain her and hope she doesn't get 44."

But Maryland's interior-perimeter combination of Langhorne, who had 28 points in the win over Vanderbilt, Coleman and point guard Kristi Toliver will provide a stern test for Stanford.

"We played Tennessee this year, we played UConn and they're right up there with those teams," said Wiggins, who has played internationally with Coleman, Harper and Langhorne. "We know that they're high caliber, they won a national championship and we definitely know that they're a great team."

In the final similarity, both Maryland and Stanford had brushes with celebrity greatness here in the snowy Northwest this weekend, depending, of course, on how greatness is defined.

The Cardinal is in the same hotel as actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who is in town to film an action-adventure movie with Christian Slater. Coach Tara VanDerveer persuaded Gooding, who won an Oscar playing a wide receiver in Jerry Maguire, to give the team a pep talk.

The Terps' rendezvous with fame, meanwhile, was a little more surreal. They are in the same hotel as Henry Winkler, Don Most and Cindy Williams, who appeared in the '70s shows Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.

"We were in the [hotel] hallway and walking toward the elevator and all of a sudden, everybody was like, 'That's the Fonz, that's the Fonz,'" said Strickland (Towson Catholic). "And everybody was like, 'Ayyyy.' It was very exciting."

If Maryland can win tonight, happy days will return to College Park, indeed.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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