U-Md. abuzz as women’s basketball team heads to Final Four


Maryland Terrapins women's basketball players react as they are greeted by the band, cheerleaders and fans at a special send-off in College Park as they make their way to the NCAA Final Four tournament in Nashville on Thursday. The three in front are forward Tierney Pfirman, guard Katie Rutan and center Malina Howard. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

He’s a sports-crazed senior on a sports-crazed campus, a place that advises those unfamiliar with the Terrapins to “fear the turtle.” Joshua Gilstein, 22, is a regular at men’s basketball and football games at the University of Maryland and went to Philadelphia last fall to root for the men’s soccer team in the NCAA tournament.

Lately, another band of Terps has caught his eye, a squad sometimes overlooked at a school with a deep attachment to men’s hoops. Now Gilstein is on the bandwagon, planning to drive from College Park to Nashville to cheer on the U-Md. women’s basketball team against undefeated Notre Dame on Sunday evening in the NCAA semifinals.

“I really got into it at the end of the season because they were doing so well,” Gilstein, of Holmdel, N.J., said this week. “Everyone knows about it. Everyone’s buzzing about it. Maryland fans and students, they’re ready for another Final Four basketball experience.”

It has been a few years — eight for the U-Md. women, 12 for the men. Those tournament feats still echo on campus. The men’s 2002 national championship brought the university wide national exposure, officials say, fueling an increase in student applications and in merchandising revenue. The women’s NCAA title in 2006 added luster to College Park’s reputation as an athletics hotbed. Both triumphs are enshrined in huge displays of floorboards and tourney brackets on walls inside the Comcast Center.

These laurels matter for U-Md. beyond its basketball fan base. Every college is looking for a way to stick out in a crowded higher education market. George Mason University enjoyed a boost when its men’s team made a surprise run to the Final Four in 2006. Butler University in Indianapolis capi­tal­ized on its men’s success in 2010 and 2011.

There are numerous stories of Final Four marketing bonanzas, generally focused on the bounce schools get from winning men’s teams. Success in the women’s tournament can be a brand-builder, too, something the universities of Tennessee and Connecticut, among others, have discovered over the years. U-Conn. got a double bounce in 2004 when its women and men both won hoops titles.

“Students choose schools for many reasons, but one of them is the excitement of big-time athletics,” U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh said Friday. “That’s the reality.”

Football and men’s basketball have long been the most prominent sports programs on campuses, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. But Loh said women’s basketball is an emerging force. “We’re seeing a steady increase in fan interest,” he said. Loh, who became U-Md. president in 2010, plans to be in Nashville. It will be his first time at a basketball Final Four.

Thursday evening, Loh gave handshakes and hugs to players at a pep rally outside the Comcast Center as the team, led by Coach Brenda Frese, boarded a bus for the airport. His message to them: “Go to the NCAAs, represent Maryland well, and kick butt.”

Sequoia Austin, a senior from Greenbelt who plays guard, is one of the team’s spirit sparkplugs. Using the Twitter handle @AwesumPawsum, Austin helped organize another campus rally Wednesday afternoon with an exuberant tweet she sent from a bus just after the team’s 76-73 tournament victory Tuesday over the University of Louisville. “Maryland Women’s Basketball will be at Stamp Student Union tomorrow at 1pm. Come holla at us!!!!!” she wrote. “#FinalFourBound.”

At Comcast Center on Thursday, Austin said the team was soaking in what she called a “spectacular” moment. “People want to stop and take pictures, or just say congratulations, from people you’ve never seen before,” she said. “Professors talking, making a point to congratulate us in class and stuff like that.”

Austin said the team is well aware that men’s basketball usually gets more attention. “You have to feel it sometimes, absolutely,” she said. “But that doesn’t discredit or devalue our success.”

The average home attendance for the 28-6 women’s team this season has been 4,881 in the Comcast Center. For the 17-15 men’s team, it has been 12,557. Both squads move next year from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten.

Frese, in her 12th year as coach, quipped that her team could make 10 Final Fours and still not reach the level of public interest that men’s basketball draws. “It’s still a man’s world,” she said. But the coach said her team’s 2006 national title generated plenty of positive publicity for the university, and she assumes the trip to Nashville will do the same.

“We’re going to enjoy this short-lived time right now with everybody that has a buzz about our team,” Frese said.

Still buzzing over Tuesday’s dramatic win was Austin Boroshok, 19, a sophomore from Harford County who plays clarinet in the pep band. Boroshok, who describes himself as “a huge band geek,” has been an eyewitness to much of the season, marveling at the exploits of a team led by All-American forward Alyssa Thomas, a senior from Harrisburg, Pa.

When Louisville’s last-second attempt to tie the regional final bounced off the rim, Boroshok said, the hometown arena fell silent while he and everyone else from College Park erupted. “We were screaming,” Boroshok said Thursday. “That was probably the greatest moment of my life. You can hear how hoarse my voice is.”

Students aren’t the only ones excited. University shuttle buses displayed this shout-out in the lighted message board above the windshield: “Lady Terps Final Four Bound! Go Terps! Beat Notre Dame!”

This is also prime time for a booster club called the Rebounders. Niecie Draper, a two-time U-Md. graduate who belongs to the club, said she started following the women’s team about 10 years ago. Asked why, she said Thursday: “Besides supporting women’s sports, and women’s basketball, I think it was winning! And the community. All the fans. All of that experience.” Draper, 49, of Upper Marlboro, said she will be in Nashville. “I’m all in.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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