The University of Maryland women's basketball team almost won, then ultimately lost here tonight the same way it has played all season long -- poorly in some stretches, sublimely in others.

Tennessee, ranked No. 2 nationally, defeated the Terrapins, 79-67, in a quarterfinal game of the AIAW national tournament before a wildly partisan crowd of 5,995. The 12-point victory might indicate that the Volunteers' trip as a member of the final four to Eugene, Ore., came as a result of a blowout. Instead, Tennessee was pushed to the utmost.

Trailing, 52-32, with 16:40 remaining, Maryland's small team began a courageous comeback. With Pam Reaves, the only senior, scoring 17 of her team-high 19 points in the second half, and the ninth-ranked Terps (19-9) playing ferocious man-to-man defense, Maryland caught up a 61-61 with 6:40 left.

When Tennessee's Mary Ostrowski took over. The 6-foot-3 freshman scored her team's next 11 points and, with Maryland unable to penetrate Tennessee's 2-3 zone, the Volunteers gradually pulled away. Their victory here -- Tennessee also eliminated the Terrapins in the quarterfinals in Knoxville last year -- moved the Volunteers into the semifinals against Old Dominion, which defeated Long Beach State, 76-60, tonight in Norfolk.

"We just couldn't get into the game from the beginning," said Maryland's Debbie Lytle, who finished with 14 points, 11 assists and four steals. "When we got all our big people in foul trouble, that made it really hard to stay with them inside."

She paused. "But you know, we were the youngest team, the most underrated club in the final eight. People didn't expect us to get this far. I think we've showed them something."

For more than a half, Maryland was overwhelmed by the taller, more experienced Volunteers. Tennessee's front line (6-5 Cindy Noble, 6-2 Tanya Haave) maneuvered freely inside for short bank shots, hooks or follow-up baskets. Tennessee led by 32-14 late in the first half and had a 42-30 margin at the half.

When the Volunteers outscored Maryland, 10-2, at the beginning of the second half, the Terrapins trailed by 20 and looked doomed. As they have all season, however, they reversed themselves and played magnificently for the next 10 minutes.

"We gained a little intensity," said Maryland Coach Chris Weller. "We were more intense on defense. We put pressure on the perimeter."

The Terrapins' man-to-man defense forced Tennessee into a running game, something Volunteer Coach Pat Head Summitt said later she wanted to avoid. Reaves scored nine straight points, two of her baskets coming on feeds from Lytle.

Waters' fast-break basket at 6:40, coming on a spectacular full-court pass from Lytle, tied the game at 61-61. Tennessee appeared stunned, its players walking slowly to the bench after Summitt called time.

Her message was simple: slow down, don't force anything, take good shots and go back to a zone defense. Summitt inexplicably had played a man-to-man defense all through the second half, and Maryland's quick players gratefully took advantage of her decision.

Ostrowski scored Tennessee's first basket in 4 1/2 minutes on a hook shot, then followed with a three-point play with 5:31 left. Reaves answered with a driving basket to cut the lead to 66-63 with 5:10 remaining, but Ostrowski scored three more baskets, all within arm's length of the backboard. Maryland never came closer then nine points thereafter.

Maryland was outrebounded, 39-27, and were guilty of 20 turnovers to 11 for Tennessee. The Volunteers had 30 assists, primarily because Maryland's forwards and centers allowed Tennessee's post players to get good position, and because the Maryland guards didn't cut off the passing lanes.

Reaves made nine of 13 shots from the floor, but her production was offset by the lack of same from Jasmina Perazic. The sophomore forward had scored 26 points in the Terrapins' two-point overtime loss to Tennessee during the regular season, but she made one of seven field goal attempts tonight and finished with two points.