What should have been an occasion for congratulations and good humor turned into self-doubt and confusion as the Maryland women's basketball team stumbled into the final of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament tonight with a 50-47 victory over Virginia.
The third-seeded Terrapins (13-6), who play defending champion North Carolina State (16-6) Saturday at 7:30 p.m. for the championship, should have had every reason to celebrate a victory over second-seeded Virginia (19-6). The Cavaliers had defeated Maryland, 71-57, earlier this season.
The Terps have struggled at times, and a place in the final makes up for a series of injuries and close loses to several national powers.
But as the Wolfpack was impressive in its 83-68 upset over top-seeded Clemson, Maryland looked awful against the Cavaliers. So bad, that Maryland Coach Chris Weller looked and sounded like the loser in brief postgame remarks.
"I don't have a lot of comments," Weller said, visibly angry. "I thought we showed a lack of poise. We didn't get much from our bench and we didn't have a lot of composure down the stretch."
The chief reason for Weller's anger was her team's ineptitude in the second half, when it scored only 19 points. Only Debbie Lytle (11 points and seven assists) and Myra Waters (13 points and 14 rebounds, both game highs) showed any signs of life or leadership. After taking a 31-21 halftime lead and appearing to beat Virginia at its own game -- a controlled tempo -- Maryland allowed the Cavaliers to take control in the second half.
While Maryland could make only one basket in the first eight minutes of the second half, Virginia crept back. The Cavaliers, ranked 16th nationally, scored three straight baskets midway through the half and cut the margin to 37-33.
Waters scored on an inside move, but Ann Bair brought Virginia back to within four by following up a miss by Chrissy Reese.
The teams traded baskets for the next several minutes, and Maryland managed to hold at least a five-point lead. Two free throws by Virginia's Melissa Mahony (10 points) with 3:56 left Maryland in front, 46-41.
The Terrapins continued to have problems with a full-court zone press it should have mastered. A basket by Jill McKone and another by Bair made it 48-45, Maryland, with 2:05 left.
Lytle and Waters teamed for the play of the game. With the 30-second clock winding down, Lytle got a step on her defender and drove to the basket. Two other Virginia players moved to cut her off, but the sophomore worked a beautiful pick-and-roll with Waters, whose basket gave the Terps a 50-45 lead with 1:39 remaining.
Valerie Ackerman of Virginia cut the lead to 50-47 with 1:21 left with an inside basket, but Waters won an important jump ball with 57 seconds left that insured victory.