COLLEGE PARK - It's spring time on campus, but the Maryland women's basketball team isn't stopping to smell any roses. There's no time.
We've reached the part of the quest in which your heroes are forced leave their home. The hobbits flee the Shire; the Terps walk out of Comcast Center.
The journey begins now.
It's not easy. Truth is, it's a bit scary out there. Home is safe, comforting, familiar.
"I didn't want it to end," Maryland senior Kristi Toliver after Tuesday night's 71-56 win over Utah, the final home game of her career. "I got a little emotional toward the end knowing that it was the last time we'd be playing in front of the best fans in the country. I'm sad, I'm not going to lie. But it's a great feeling knowing we still have games left to be played."
With the methodical dismantling of Utah in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Terps have officially entered their season of tests. Every time they take the court now, they'll be faced with a challenge different from what they encountered in the first two rounds. Every remaining foe is good enough to end Maryland's season.
In posting their 14th straight win, the Terps buried the Utes early and with little mercy. They won these first two games of the tournament by a combined 44 points. In both games, Maryland coach Brenda Frese was able to watch her starters build up their statistics while still getting valuable tournament minutes for her bench.
But no more coasting. Next up for the top-seeded Terps is a date with No. 4 Vanderbilt Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C. In addition to winning the Southeastern Conference championship, the Commodores were 4-0 against top 10 teams this season. With a similar high-scoring offense as the Terps, Vanderbilt poses a legitimate risk. Not like Maryland's first two games in College Park.
The first two rounds of this tournament served as an appetizer. It was about getting into tournament mode, about giving home fans something to cheer for, about providing Toliver and Marissa Coleman a deserving send-off. The next steps are where the quest for a national title really begins.
As when Frodo left the lush, rolling hills of the Shire, the Terps' journey will now be marked by obstacles that range from difficult to detrimental to dangerous.
Get past SEC champs on Saturday and then maybe Baylor awaits. Or perhaps Louisville, coached by former Maryland assistant Jeff Walz. If they reach the Final Four in St. Louis, a tough Oklahoma could be licking its chops, followed potentially by an undefeated Connecticut in the championship game.
Fortunately for Maryland, Frese, Toliver and Coleman have taken this journey before. In fact, the Terps were quietly pleased when the brackets were released last week and they saw Utah, one of the teams Maryland had to face before cutting down nets in 2006.
En route to the national championship three years ago, the Terps hit the locker room at halftime against Utah holding their stomachs. The flu bug emptied much of the roster, the cheerleaders and even the band of energy. They persevered, though, in what still stands as a signature win for the program.
Matched with Utah again Tuesday night, this time in the second round, it was the Utes who walked off the court in need of a halftime cocktail of Pepto and Gatorade. Utah went from SportsCenter upset to upset stomachs in just a few quick minutes.
Confusing Maryland early with a flex offense, the Utes had their shot and blew it. They were hit with passes out of an And 1 video, statistics stolen from a computer game and shots that show up on highlight shows. Can you really blame Utah players if they suddenly felt like losing their lunch?
After just 20 minutes, Coleman already had a double-double, Maryland was shooting 60 percent from the field and held a 27-9 rebounding edge. And here's the kicker: For a good chunk of the first half, Utah was winning the thing.
Even though the Utes boasted an 18-14 advantage midway through the half, Maryland outscored them, 30-10, the rest of the way. The Terps closed the half with a 12-0 run, giving them a comfy 16-point lead.
The second half was merely about crystallizing the box score, perhaps the last game of the tournament Maryland can expect to dominate so easily. It's not likely the Terps will out-rebound another foe 54-24. Nor can they expect to shoot three of 14 from behind the arc - plus give up 16 turnovers - and expect to win so handily.
After it was over, players appeared at a news conference. As they walked off the podium and toward their locker room, Toliver and Coleman passed a 20-foot chunk of basketball court that hung inside a corridor. It was from the 2006 championship, looming large over the players - a reminder of where the program has been and where this team hopes to go.
For the Terps, the real journey begins now.