The Maryland women's basketball team is four wins away from its second national title. Standing in its way Saturday is a pretty good imitation of the Terps team that won the program's first.
"Yeah, I liken them to our 2006 national championship team," coach Brenda Frese told reporters Friday after her team rode the train to the Bridgeport, Conn., regional for the second time in five years.
It was a heck of a compliment to pay to No. 10 seed Oregon (22-13) ahead of its Sweet 16 matchup with third-seeded Maryland (32-2), even if it was a tad outdated to some. The youngsters leading the Ducks probably don't remember watching Kristi Toliver's game-tying, overtime-forcing 3-pointer in the 2006 national championship game. After all, they were still in elementary school.
But more than youth — Oregon starts three freshmen and a sophomore, Maryland started two freshmen and two sophomores (and a shovel-ready rebuild); coach Kelly Graves is in his third season in Eugene, Frese was in her fourth in College Park — bind the years and the two teams meeting in the NCAA tournament regional semifinal. Interestingly, it's the common opponent that in some ways legitimized Frese's Ducks-Terps comparison: Duke.
Eleven years ago, back in the days when Maryland could conceivably claim an Atlantic Coast Conference rival in Durham, N.C., the Blue Devils were the league's elite. From 2000-01 to 2004-05, they won every regular-season conference championship and all but one ACC tournament crown. The first two times Duke faced Maryland in 2005-06, it took the top-10 showdowns by a combined 28 points.
But in the ACC tournament, the Terps won in a semifinal upset. One month later, they met for a fourth time, in the NCAA final. Maryland was bad in the first half, great in the second and, after Toliver's rainbow shot over 6-foot-7 Alison Bales, three points better in overtime. The program had its first national title and, just as important, the foundation for staying power.
Oregon's transformation has been similarly mesmerizing, if compressed into a tighter timeline. The Ducks finished an unspectacular 8-10 this season in the Pac-12 — by the Ratings Percentage Index, the strongest league in the country. Then they, too, scored an upset in their conference tournament, over No. 3 seed Washington.
After Oregon's one-point victory over No. 7 seed Temple in its NCAA tournament opener, the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils awaited. The Ducks' 40-minute performance Monday at Cameron Indoor Stadium was not a laugher, but rather a bravura episode of "The Young and the Selfless." Freshmen and sophomores scored 58 of the Ducks' 74 points. Twenty of their 26 field goals in the nine-point win were assisted.
"They didn't understand the expectations and what was at stake, advancing each round," Frese said of the similarities between her '06 team and this Oregon squad. "So you can see that there's no pressure on their shoulders, that they're excited to be here and they're peaking at the right time. They're playing with a lot of confidence."
There's another easy comparison to make — between the teams actually playing at Webster Bank Arena. Asked about the high-profile matchups in the starting lineups, Graves acknowledged, "Yeah, I guess we do mirror ourselves." It's not hard to see why.
Handling the ball for Maryland is Big Ten Freshman of the Year Destiny Slocum; for Oregon, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Sabrina Ionescu. The leading scorer for each team is an athletic post: Terps senior Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) and Ducks freshman Ruthy Hebard.
Even the less heralded of the teams' freshman starters both offer good trivia fodder. Maryland wing Kaila Charles is the daughter of a former Olympic sprinter. Oregon forward Mallory McGwire's father, Dan, played five seasons as an NFL quarterback. (Her uncle, Mark, you've probably heard of.)
Maryland is considered a double-digit favorite in Saturday's game, and the difference between remorse and a likely rematch Monday with defending champion Connecticut could be that the Terps have been upset before. Graves pointed out that his green team never has lost in the NCAA tournament. This is the Ducks' first-ever Sweet 16 game and only appearance in the "Big Dance" since 2005.
Maryland's veterans still feel the sting of their last loss to an underdog Pac-12 team. It was No. 7 seed Washington that knocked them out in the second round last season.
"We will never forget how we felt last year, how we sent our seniors out last year," Terps senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. "It shouldn't have went that way, especially all the hard work they put in for their four years. Part of us, we've been playing for them especially, and like I said, I remember how I felt, so I would never want our six freshmen to feel that way."