The Maryland women's basketall team won its third Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in four years tonight, but you had to wonder why the Terrapins made it so tough on themselves.
For the third straight night, third-seeded Maryland (14-6) countered a good half of basketball with an atrocious one. And for the third consecutive evening, the Terrapins somehow made it through, this time with a 64-63 victory over fourth-seeded North Carolina State, the defending champion.
The championship, however, does not guarantee any place for the Terrapins in the AIAW national tournament; it only enhances their position in the Eastern Region 1B field.
After taking a 43-27 lead at half-time tonight, with sophomore guard Debbie Lytle scoring 23 of her game-high 31 points, Maryland lost its composure in the second half and had only 21 points in the last 20 minutes. The Terrapins, ranked 12th nationally, needed two free throws by Myra Waters with 19 seconds left to insure the victory after State's Ginger Rouse had missed a foul shot seconds earlier that would have tied the score at 62.
Waters made both shots of a one and one after being fouled as she grabbed Rouse's missed attempt. State scored at the buzzer for the final one-point margin.
Maryland had scored 24 points in one half against Duke and 19 against Virginia in it's 50-47 semifinal victory Friday. Maryland Coach Chris Weller could find no explanation for the nightly turnarounds.
"If I could be exact about that, we wouldn't be doing it -- I assure you," Weller said. "I think we don't know how to play with a lead of 10 points or more. We don't have the experience (Maryland has no seniors) to play with a lead yet."
During the first half, Maryland put on a clinic. In the second half, it looked more like an emergency room.
With Lytle scoring, the Terrapins looked brilliant in the first 20 minutes. Maryland opened wtih a 1-2-2 zone defense that stopped State's two perimeter shooters, Rouse and Trudi Lacey, and also halted penetration by Angie Armstrong, the Wolfpack's quick point guard.
Lytle was the key. She roamed at the point on defense, forcing turnovers and then racing down court for easy transition baskets. On offense, she drove at will against what passed for a 2-3 zone by N.C. State.
But State came out in the second half and forced two quick turnovers. Maryland became cautious, and the Wolfpack (16-7), ranked 13th nationally, rallied behind the shooting of Lacey and guard Beth Fielden.
With Fielden (13 of 17 points in the second half) scoring on long set shots and Lacey (18 points and 10 rebounds) hitting difficult jumpers, the Wolf Pack crept back. A 17-point halftime lead became a six-point Maryland margin when Lacey scored on an inbounds play with 9:36 remaining.
Although Maryland became flustered, it never lost the lead. After Fielden tied the game at 56 with 5:26 left, Waters made a basket and two free throws in the next minute and Maryland led by four.
The Terrapins were able to maintain at least a three-point margin until Lacey hit a foul shot that made it 62-60, Maryland, with 20 seconds left. Rouse grabbed Lacey's missed second attempt and was fouled. She made the first shot, but the usually reliable junior missed badly on the second.
Waters out fought Lacey and Karen Brabson for the rebound. Although the junior forward had suffered through probably her worst game of the year (two for 11 from the floor, nine points), she coolly made both foul shots for the winning margin.