Terrapins Land on Top of the World

Crystal Langhorne, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver, from left to right, celebrate their overtime win for Maryland's first women's basketball title.
Crystal Langhorne, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver, from left to right, celebrate their overtime win for Maryland's first women's basketball title. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

BOSTON, April 4 -- The University of Maryland women's basketball players jumped and paraded with a zeal befitting a team that had just dramatically won its first national title in overtime.

Then Marissa Coleman pierced the air with a happy realization. "Listen up!" Coleman screamed. "This is the first of many." And with that, the mosh pit of teammates around her turned from celebratory to euphoric.

After their 78-75 win over Duke at TD Banknorth Garden on Tuesday night, Maryland's players found two reasons to commemorate their championship: It provided the idyllic endpoint to a landmark season, and it served as a perfect launching point for a potential dynasty.

In coming back from a 13-point second-half deficit to upset Duke, Maryland (34-4) relied almost entirely on players scheduled to return next season. Freshman Kristi Toliver swished a three-pointer to tie the game with 6.1 seconds left in regulation; junior Shay Doron scored four points in overtime; Coleman, a freshman, sealed the win with two late free throws.

In a reverse of the typical sports tradition, Maryland's players stormed into the stands at the end of the game and called out to three jubilant sections filled with fans who had traveled to Boston from College Park.

"We did it y'all," Toliver said. "We're on the top, and nobody can take us down."

With no seniors and six freshmen and sophomores among their seven leading scorers, the Terrapins had been dismissed early on as a potential champion because they were thought to be too inexperienced, only to play with undeterred poise. They beat defending champion Baylor, then upset Atlantic Coast Conference rivals North Carolina and Duke (31-4) in the Final Four.

They saved their greatest composure for Tuesday night. Maryland played what Coach Brenda Frese called the "ugliest basketball" of the season in the first half, then resurrected it with about 10 minutes left. When Toliver completed a methodical comeback with her step-back three-pointer, the Terrapins celebrated like they had won the game in regulation. "They know overtime is their time," Frese said. "They played with so much confidence."

The two teams gave women's basketball exactly the final this sport wanted to show off to 18,642 spectators in the arena and an ESPN audience. Maryland and Duke were the two highest-scoring teams in the country this season, their successes founded on a frenzied athleticism. True to reputation, they flew down the court recklessly Tuesday -- with wild results.

Inexperience had never mattered to this Maryland team. In achieving the greatest season in school history, players had often defied the trappings of immaturity. Selflessness? Five Maryland players averaged 10 or more points. Composure? The Terrapins confidently declared that they owned overtime after they used it to beat Utah in the round of eight.

"It doesn't matter how old we are, because we never lose our cool," Coleman said. "We've played like that all year. Nothing gets to us. We never thought we were going to lose this game, even if other people did."

Maryland had made the NCAA tournament only twice in the decade before Frese, 35, arrived in 2002, and the coach revitalized Maryland basketball with vigorous recruiting that put off some of her rivals. She lured five prep all-Americans; two more top recruits and a transfer from Tennessee arrive next season.

Toliver said earlier this week that she foresees a women's basketball mini-dynasty in College Park, one similar to the Connecticut team that won four titles from 2000 to 2004 with stars Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash. "Trust me," Toliver said. "We can be that good."

Debbie Yow, Maryland's athletic director, walked into a pep rally at a hotel in Boston this week and told a room filled with fans and boosters that, regardless of the results of the Final Four, Terrapins basketball had arrived. "We will become a fixture in the NCAA tournament," Yow said, "a constant contender to reach the Final Four."

The school's fan base has dealt with an up-and-down school year. The football team has not qualified for a bowl game in two years; the men's basketball team has missed the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. But the men's soccer and women's field hockey teams won national titles.

Tuesday, the Maryland fans in attendance here made themselves heard. One fan, wearing an orange basketball mask, danced wildly when Maryland cut the lead to eight with 14 minutes left. Another held up a "PUKE" sign even when Duke led by 13.

The Terrapins sold out their allotment of 850 tickets, which administrators heralded as a sign their attendance can grow even in a metropolitan area dense with four successful men's college teams. The school launched discounted, 2006-07 women's basketball ticket packages this week and hopes it can boost last season's average home attendance of 5,000 by capitalizing on this exposure.

"The fans are there," Yow said. "And I don't think there's any doubt now that we have a perfect team to give them."

After the victory Tuesday night, hundreds of chanting and screaming Maryland students streamed off campus and into College Park bars to celebrate.

"It's pandemonium," senior Jonathan Waters said.

The students quickly filled the intersection of Knox Road and Route 1. Before long, students were climbing street signs, and smoke rose from burning clothes and wood in the intersection. Police and fire officials quickly arrived on the scene and one person was taken to an ambulance on a stretcher. When police in riot gear marched down Route 1, the crowd moved up Knox Road.

"I saw a big gun," said freshman Robert Chernow, 18. "And that was my cue to leave."

Staff writer Josh Partlow contributed to this report from College Park.

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