"I don't know how she's done it this year," a rival coach was saying in midseason about Chris Weller, the Maryland women's basketball coach. "I always thought she was overrated, but this year Chris really has shown me a lot.

"Since (Kris) Kirchner left, she's had no center. Her players are very young, and at times are totally out of control. Yet she keeps winning games she has no business winning."

Although Weller is reluctant to say it, she probably has done her finest coaching job this season, her sixth at Maryland. Certainly, no one expected Maryland to be playing in the AIAW quarterfinals, as it does tonight at 7:30 in Knoxville against No. 2-ranked Tennessee, with the circumstances surrounding the 1980-81 Terrapins.

When Kirchner, a 6-foot-4 all-America, announced last summer she was transferring to Rutgers for her senior year, the program at Maryland appeared to be in trouble. Not only did her departure leave an expected vacancy at center, but Kirchner announced publicly her dissatisfaction with Weller.

Despite Weller's highly successful record (126-38 entering tonight's game), some observers noted that Kirchner was the fifth player to leave a team that had a 27-4 record and made the AIAW final in 1978. Successful teams usually do not lose that many players so quickly, it was said. Weller was accused of being aloof from her players, too rigid in her coaching.

But with the national tournament down to the final eight teams, Maryland (19-8) is there, one victory from gaining a berth in the semifinals this weekend in Eugene, Ore. The ninth-ranked Terrapins have to be considered underdogs against Tennessee (23-5), which won in overtime at College Park earlier this year and eliminated them from the quarterfinals last year. Tennessee has four players 6-2 or taller, including 6-5 all-America center Cindy Noble; Maryland starts one player taller than 6 feet.

Yet Weller has faced taller teams all year, and has usually fared well. Tennessee won by only two; then-No. 1 Old Dominion won by three, and Rutgers, with Kirchner, lost twice. The Terrapins have the worst record of any team in the final eight, but only Long Beach State beat Maryland decisively when the Terraphins were at full strength. Faced with a small, young team, Weller has shown she can adapt to her players' abilities and personalities and win.

"I know some people didn't think we belonged in the final eight," Weller said after Maryland had defeated Kentucky, 83-82, Saturday night in a second-round AIAW tournament game. "But we are, and we're proud to be here."

"You've got to give Miss Weller a lot of credit," said sophomore guard Debbie Lytle, the team's second-leading scorer (14.2) and rebounder (7.3). "We're young and still learning, and she's had to get on everybody's case. But we believe in her system now. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, you know. We're young -- just learning the college game."

"Everybody has had to make some sacrifices," said Weller. "I'm playing Myra Waters at strong forward, and she is really a wing player. I have to play Debbie Lytle on the wing, although she's a natural point guard. We're just so small."

Weller is using a lineup that includes Belinda Pearman, a still-green freshman center; a freshman point guard (Marcia Richardson) who would rather play on the wing; Lytle, who could be one of the best point guards in the country; Waters, the team leader in scoring (16.4) and rebounding (8.7), and a quick forward (Pam Reaves) who has been anything but quick most of the year because of two operations on her left knee. The sixth player, Jasmina Perazic, is a great shooter, but plays so dreamily at times that the nickname "All Other World" beckons.

This is a bizarre hodgepodge at best, yet Weller has managed to obscure her players' weaknesses.

Because of Kirchner's transfer, Weller was forced to abandon her usual reliance on a set offense designed to get the ball inside. Maryland has excellent team speed, and it will run at any opportunity. Nearly every team that has tried to get into a running game with the Terps this year has ultimately reverted to a slower pace. If Maryland has looked at times like a horse without a rider, it also has taken games away from other teams by establishing its own tempo. CAPTION: Picture, Chris Weller huddles with her Maryland team during victory over Kentucky in AIAW second-round game. By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post