COLLEGE PARK - A hush fell over the crowd of roughly 200 people inside Heritage Hall in Comcast Center last night as the women's NCAA tournament selection show began. The Maryland players - who sat in the front row, with family members, friends and fans gathered behind them - already knew that they were in the tournament, having won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and they had a good idea that they would receive a No. 1 seed for the second straight year. But there was still a bit of suspense.
"I think we totally expected to get the 1 seed in Raleigh, but I was still holding my breath. You never know what the committee wants to do," senior Kristi Toliver said. "I think we were just really looking forward to see who we're going to play."
They didn't have to wait long to find out; their match-up was the first one revealed: No. 1 seed Maryland against No. 16 seed Dartmouth (18-10), the ACC champions versus the Ivy League champions. The crowd cheered. The Terrapins would play their first two games in College Park, and if they continue to win, they would move on to the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.
"Best-case scenario, you're playing at home, you hope you can take care of business," coach Brenda Frese said. "It's one game at a time, but I just love the fact that if we're able to take care of that, we'd be able to travel to a location where the best fans in the country can follow this team."
Joining Maryland (28-4) as the top seeds are Connecticut (33-0, Trenton region), Oklahoma (28-4, Oklahoma City region), and Duke (26-5, Berkeley region). Two-time defending champion Tennessee (22-10) is the fifth seed in the Berkeley region - its lowest seed ever - and will open with MAC champion Ball State.
UConn is the tournament's overall top seed and, after winning their regular season games by an average margin of 31.5 points, the Huskies are the overwhelming favorites. ESPN host Trey Wingo opened the selection show by asking whether the Huskies' undefeated regular season will end with its sixth national title; the Heritage Hall crowd shouted "No!" Analyst Kara Lawson said that the gulf between UConn and the rest of the field "is as wide as I've ever seen"; the crowd booed.
With the way the brackets are set up, Maryland can only meet UConn. in the national final. The Terrapins were the tournament's second overall seed, according to tournament committee chair Jacki Silar.
"UConn is not in my thoughts right now. Right now, it is Dartmouth," Toliver said. "UConn. could choke and lose to whomever in second round. It's all about who you have coming up and for us ... it's Dartmouth."
The Big East and SEC each put seven teams into the field, while the Big 12 and ACC - the two highest-rated conferences according to CollegeRPI.com - received six bids apiece. Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia and Georgia Tech join Maryland in the field; Boston College, which won 20 games and finished 7-7 in the ACC, was left out.
"I think it speaks volumes about our conference, for us to be able to get two No. 1 seeds," Frese said. "In our conference, we continue to make each other better. I think that gives us a great amount of confidence, knowing that we've been able to compete against Duke and beat them twice."
The players gathered at Frese's house Sunday to watch the men's NCAA tournament selection show. It served as a trial run of sorts for the youthful Terrapins: While Coleman and Toliver were part of the 2006 NCAA title team, five other players - junior college transfer Dee Liles, redshirt freshmen Kim Rodgers and Anjale Barrett, and freshmen Lynetta Kizer and Yemi Oyefuwa- are participating in their first NCAA tournament.
Oyefuwa, for one, wasn't sure what to expect. The 6-foot-6 center is from London, and "earlier, we were talking about going dancing, and she thought we actually had to go dance," senior Marissa Coleman said with a smile.
"That's the part that blows your mind," Frese said. "The youthful innocence, it kind of reminds me of 2006, when a lot of our kids didn't have a clue, but we had the veterans that understood."
MARYLAND (28-4) VS. DARTMOUTH (18-10)
Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
(approximate), College Park