RALEIGH, N.C. - Seventy seconds remained in the NCAA Raleigh Regional final between top seed Maryland and third seed Louisville on Monday night when Marissa Coleman stepped to the foul line. The Maryland senior had shot plenty of high-pressure free throws over the past month, as the Terrapins won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and advanced to their second straight Elite Eight, but at this moment, tears started to trickle down her face.
Her team trailed by 19 points. The free throws would have no impact on the outcome of the game. Her college career was coming to an end.
Coleman made the two shots and, moments later, walked off the court to an ovation from the pro-Maryland announced crowd of 2,659 at RBC Center. When the final horn sounded on the Cardinals' 77-60 victory - which put them into their first Final Four - she and fellow senior Kristi Toliver were on the bench, disconsolate.
"It's always tough to have that moment, for seniors, for their careers to end. Especially two seniors like these two," said coach Brenda Frese, who embraced each player as she left the court. "What they've meant to our team, what they've meant to our program - you hate for it to end like this. I want to remember all the good times, I want to remember all the wins, I want to remember the position they've put us in."
Coleman and Toliver - who went 126-19 and scored more than 2,000 points apiece in their four seasons - had made no secret of their desire to finish their storied careers at Maryland in the same manner they began them: with a national championship.
But in Louisville (33-4), they faced a team that is much like the Terrapins were in 2006, when Coleman and Toliver helped lead them to the NCAA title. The Cardinals are young and brash - their shouts filled the arena during pre-game warm-ups as the Terrapins quietly shot at the other end of the court - and have an up-and-coming coach, former Maryland assistant Jeff Walz. They will face the winner of the Oklahoma City Regional, either Oklahoma or Purdue, on Sunday evening in the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Louisville senior Angel McCoughtry, a St. Frances graduate who helped transform a program that had never advanced past the round of 16, was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player, after recording 21 points (on 9-for-25 shooting) and 13 rebounds against Maryland (31-5). Coleman (18 points) and Toliver (14 points) were also named to the all-regional team, as was Louisville senior Candyce Bingham (15 points).
The Terrapins had specialized in double-digit comebacks in the postseason, starting with their rally against Wake Forest in the ACC tournament quarterfinals and extending to Saturday's 78-74 victory over Vanderbilt, in which Coleman scored 42 points as the Terps overcame an 18-point deficit. They never led against Louisville and trailed by as many as 19 points.
Frese said the energy the Terrapins expended in the game against Vanderbilt might have affected them Monday, particularly against a Louisville team that plays a physical, pressing style. Maryland committed 21 turnovers and struggled to find open shots against the Cardinals' aggressive defense; the Terrapins missed 17 of their first 23 shots and shot 38.9 percent overall from the field.
"They did a really good job making us uncomfortable and throwing different looks at us," Toliver said. "They wanted to be physical from the beginning. We never really could get into rhythm."
The Terrapins, behind the shooting of sophomore Marah Strickland (15 points), a Towson Catholic graduate, whittled Louisville's lead to 28-25 toward the end of the first half. The Cardinals' advantage ballooned to 44-31 after back-to-back baskets by McCoughtry with 14:55 to play.
Maryland didn't get closer than eight points the rest of the way.
The loss abruptly ended what had been a charmed two-month run for the Terrapins. Coleman and Toliver led Maryland to 15 straight wins - Monday's defeat was its first since Jan. 30 - and a sweep of the ACC regular-season and tournament titles.
"We knew we could make it to a Final Four, and you know, we fell short," Coleman said. "We accomplished a lot of great things. We thought we could win the ACC championship and ACC title, and we did that. We accomplished a lot of things that people thought weren't possible. I wouldn't have wanted to spend my senior season with a better group of girls or coaching staff than what I did this year."