For 2 brightest stars, it suddenly goes dark

The Baltimore Sun

RALEIGH, N.C. - The younger Maryland players sat around the perimeter of the locker room, as the television cameras shined bright lights onto the puffy, red eyes of the Terps' two hurting seniors.

"Marissa and Kristi are two of the best things we could have ever asked for," junior Dee Liles said.

Added sophomore Marah Strickland: "We just wish we could have taken them further."

Fresh off the final game of their careers, a 77-60 loss to Louisville in an NCAA tournament regional final, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver tried as many ways as possible to explain the pain they felt. If three years earlier they tasted the highest high, on this night they were tormented by the lowest low.

Coleman and Toliver were the ones who helped lead Maryland to the national championship in 2006. They were only freshmen then. Four titles, they thought. Or, at the least, four trips to the Final Four. But Monday night's loss meant they would never return. Great expectations breed greater disappointment. Their time in Terps uniforms started with a bang. And ended with a whimper.

The realization hit Coleman first. There was a brief timeout with just a minute remaining. Before she stepped up to shoot a free throw, Coleman was near the Maryland bench when the sheer force of the moment nearly buckled her knees.

Later, she said only one thing was going through her head: "My career at Maryland is over. And we didn't get to the Final Four like we expected."

It hit Toliver next. Brenda Frese took her senior guard out of the game, and Toliver walked off the court one final time, gave her coach an extended hug and collapsed into a chair. She said it felt like a knife through her heart.

"We didn't want it to end," she said. "It's unfortunate that it had to come to an end, especially this way."

As they prepare now for professional careers, they leave with incredible memories, successes most players only dream of - but also a hint of promise that will be forever unfulfilled.

But though it's true Toliver and Coleman deserved to play in at least one more Final Four, they also leave Maryland as the winningest players in school history. They leave with a foundation laid, their successors expected to make similar tournament runs every March.

"This is the standard that's been set for Maryland basketball," Frese told her underclassmen after the game. "They set the standard."

Reflection is tough when defeat is so raw, but Toliver remembered when she was being recruited by Maryland. Frese sold her a vision, the idea the Terps were building something that might stand for a long time.

"That's the reason we came to Maryland," Toliver said, "to bring it back, to have that tradition again and be the first to win a national championship."

Mission accomplished - ahead of schedule, in fact.

But over the next three years, the string of successes fell short of that amazing freshman campaign. This March was to be different.

On Monday, though, they faced a Louisville team that seemed to be one step ahead all night. It was a group that counter-punched, that always had an answer and that made Maryland work for every basket.

Louisville coach Jeff Walz, Frese's former assistant, got the better of his ex-boss, mixing up defenses, containing Coleman just two nights after she scored a school-record 42 points against Vanderbilt and making sure his players controlled the glass.

Last season, Maryland lost to a good Stanford team in the regional final. Before Monday's game, Toliver told her younger teammates the Elite Eight round is usually the toughest. But what made the Louisville loss so disappointing is that Coleman, Toliver and the rest of the Terps knew they were good enough to beat the Cardinals. The entire night made for a frustrating memory that won't be easy to shake.

"I think that we've had great moments. And we've had disappointing moments," Toliver said. "And right now we're in a disappointing moment."

With just a minute remaining Monday night, Coleman hit the two free throws and left the court to join Toliver on the bench. She nearly fell into Frese's arms, her knees wobbling, the last chapter of her college career feeling like the 12th round.

Soon, time had expired and the buzzer sounded. Louisville players were celebrating, shouting into cameras: "We ain't done!" and "Where you at, President Barack? I want to meet you, baby!" And from Angel McCoughtry, the St. Frances graduate whose basketball career now stretches from Baltimore playgrounds to the Final Four in St. Louis: "I'm coming to Baltimore! And I'm going to Disney World, too!"

Most of the Terps went through a receiving line and congratulated a Final Four team. Coleman and Toliver couldn't leave the bench, though, neither ready to walk away. Coleman's head hung between her knees, and Toliver's face was lost in a towel. They had hoped for so much more.

"You hate for it to end like this," a red-eyed Frese said. "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."

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