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As Maryland women roll into Sweet 16, they’re evoking memories of 2006 national champions

Brenda Frese wanted her team to see what might be possible.

Given the restrictions required to manage a pandemic, some players had never glimpsed the shimmering trophy in the hallway of Xfinity Center, the one commemorating Maryland’s lone national championship in women’s basketball. Frese wanted her No. 2-seeded Terrapins to have this image in mind as they departed for San Antonio to pursue their own grand ambitions in the NCAA tournament.

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“I just wanted to give them a visual,” she said.

“It was a good little bit of motivation,” senior forward Chloe Bibby said. “We were like, ‘OK, this is what we’re working for.’”

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Since that day in April 2006 when she clutched the trophy as confetti fell from the ceiling in Boston, Frese had guided plenty of excellent teams on Final Four quests, but she had never felt compelled to use this particular motivational tactic. There was something about the 2020-21 team that resurrected memories from 15 years ago.

Maryland's Kristi Toliver (20) and the bench react after she made a late step-back 3-pointer to send the 2006 national championship game into overtime. (Chitose Suzuki/Associated Press)
Maryland's Kristi Toliver (20) and the bench react after she made a late step-back 3-pointer to send the 2006 national championship game into overtime. (Chitose Suzuki/Associated Press)

Perhaps it was the way they shared the ball so fluidly or the way they bonded without any superfluous tensions. Like the 2006 champions, they seemed to realize they might be great before the wider college basketball world woke to the possibility.

ESPN broadcasters continually raised comparisons to the 2006 team as Maryland stormed its way through the first two rounds of this year’s tournament. Frese and her players are no longer flying under anyone’s radar as they prepare for a Sweet 16 matchup with Texas. They’re playing as well as anyone in the country.

“I definitely see a lot of similar qualities, though I don’t think you can tap this team quite yet,” Frese said. “There are a lot of parallels when you talk about their chemistry. That ’06 team was a sisterhood with no drama. They played for each other. I could 100% say the same thing about this team, this season.”

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The 2006 team also entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed. Those Terrapins had begun the season ranked No. 14 in the country, a program on the rise but seemingly stuck behind Duke and North Carolina in a loaded Atlantic Coast Conference.

Frese, then in her fourth season in College Park, did not mind stating her lofty aspirations for the program. This was the crew she’d recruited to pull Maryland to the summit — a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen who fit together as the perfect starting five.

Shay Doron was Frese’s first major signing, a daring guard from Israel by way of New York’s famed Christ the King prep powerhouse. Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper came next, one an oak tree around whom her teammates revolved and the other a grinning shot blocker who provided inspiration with her comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman, a point guard who saw herself as the next Kobe Bryant in clutch moments and a wing who could fill any role on a basketball court, completed the puzzle.

More than the comforts of College Park or the chance to play against rugged ACC competition, they bought into Frese and the vision she pitched in their homes and high school gyms.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played for someone with that much energy and excitement for the game,” Langhorne said of the 35-year-old Frese.

“I didn’t just want us to be good while I was there,” Doron recalled in 2016. “I wanted Maryland to become a powerhouse, something lasting.”

Anyone who’d followed these players on the recruiting trail knew Maryland would be good, but common wisdom suggested Frese’s team would need a year of seasoning.

Maryland players Crystal Langhorne (1), Marissa Coleman (25) and Kristi Toliver (20) celebrate their 78-75 overtime victory over Duke in the national championship game April 4, 2006, in Boston. Duke's Alison Bales (43) looks on, right. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
Maryland players Crystal Langhorne (1), Marissa Coleman (25) and Kristi Toliver (20) celebrate their 78-75 overtime victory over Duke in the national championship game April 4, 2006, in Boston. Duke's Alison Bales (43) looks on, right. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

The ’06 players point to a close loss to mighty Tennessee, during a Nov. tournament in the Virgin Islands, as their collective moment of realization. They were so close to the top of their sport. “Man, we can do this,” Coleman recalled thinking in a 2016 interview.

That season featured many tense games and a few legitimate setbacks, most notably an 18-point home loss to Duke.

Frese, however, did not want her players to see themselves as some frisky work in progress. They were good enough to win the whole thing, and she wanted them to seize the moment. When they visited Boston College for a game in early January, she took them on a side trip to TD Garden, where the Final Four would be played. She wanted to stoke their hunger for the final destination, much as she did by showing this year’s team the 2006 trophy.

“I always say that I don’t want to sit and wait until next year because our chemistry is right this year,” she said in early March 2006. “Everything is well in place this season and I think the sky’s the limit for this team.”

Her words proved prophetic as Maryland beat Duke in the ACC tournament and zipped through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament. Then, the 2006 Terrapins faced their own mini-pandemic as a debilitating flu sickened almost every member of the team and coaching staff. Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they played the regional final against Utah, will always evoke memories of dizzy spells and upset stomachs for Frese.

Maryland players show off the NCAA championship trophy after beating Duke, 78-75, in overtime April 4, 2006, in Boston. Kristi Toliver is at center bottom with Shay Doron next to her and Laura Harper behind her. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
Maryland players show off the NCAA championship trophy after beating Duke, 78-75, in overtime April 4, 2006, in Boston. Kristi Toliver is at center bottom with Shay Doron next to her and Laura Harper behind her. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

They survived by a score of 75-65 and moved on to Boston, where they would face their most familiar nemeses, North Carolina and Duke.

The games they won there remain essential to program lore: an 11-point pasting of the North Carolina team that had beaten them in the ACC final and a heart-stopping comeback against Duke, punctuated by Toliver’s step-back 3-pointer over 6-foot-7 Alison Bales to send it to overtime.

Langhorne, who recently retired from the Seattle Storm after 13 WNBA seasons, said the national championship remains her greatest basketball achievement.

“I don’t think we realized how big the moment was when we were in it,” she said. “But it was like, ‘Why not now?’ And looking back, it’s like, ‘Thank God,’ because after that, we weren’t as successful.”

Many people, including Frese and her players, expected the 2006 championship to be step one in a run of greatness. University president C.D. “Dan” Mote Jr. proclaimed the Terrapins a budding dynasty at the victory celebration. They returned every key player for the 2006-07 season and started out No. 1 in the country.

They never got back.

“We weren’t ready to be the big dog,” Langhorne said.

Despite winning scores of games and earning a pair of No. 1 seeds, the players from 2006 never tasted another Final Four. The five starters went on to long, decorated careers in basketball. Langhorne, Coleman and Toliver made WNBA All-Star teams. Harper played in the WNBA and now coaches Coppin State’s women’s basketball team. Doron still plays professionally in Israel. They maintain close friendships as they near the age Frese was when she coached them to their “natty.”

They never reprised their 2006 run, however, and there’s a lesson in that for the current Terrapins. Like their championship predecessor, this Maryland team came together more quickly than anyone expected. The lineup features no full-season starters from the 2019-20 team that would have earned a No. 1 seed if not for the pandemic. Big Ten coaches didn’t pick Maryland to win the conference. How could they foresee a team led by three sophomores, two senior transfers and a freshman phenom who broke her foot becoming Frese’s greatest offensive juggernaut?

“They were dealing with a lot of change, and at first they looked hesitant,” said Langhorne, who frequently watches her alma mater on television. “But you could see as the year went along they were getting a lot more comfortable, and you could see they were having fun. You could see it, just watching, that they really enjoy playing together.”

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Maryland coach Brenda Frese celebrates as she cuts down the net after defeating Duke in overtime of the 2006 NCAA final. “It’s youthful bliss when you do it in your 30s,” she said of winning a national championship. “You think, ‘Oh wow, this is easy!’ But to be the last team standing, it’s really, really hard to do.” (Elsa/Getty Images)
Maryland coach Brenda Frese celebrates as she cuts down the net after defeating Duke in overtime of the 2006 NCAA final. “It’s youthful bliss when you do it in your 30s,” she said of winning a national championship. “You think, ‘Oh wow, this is easy!’ But to be the last team standing, it’s really, really hard to do.” (Elsa/Getty Images)

If she could get into a room with the Terrapins, she would urge them to remain focused on the collective. “No one talks to me now about being an All-American,” she said. “‘If you win, you are set in stone forever, so you play together to win the game.”

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Frese has won more than 500 games at Maryland, but she has also never been back to the NCAA final. “It’s youthful bliss when you do it in your 30s,” she said. “You think, ‘Oh wow, this is easy!’ But to be the last team standing, it’s really, really hard to do.”

She knows her current players have a chance, hence her decision to show them the trophy case.

“When you have a team putting all the pieces together like we have this season,” she said, “you have to take advantage.”

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