Thursday's 17-point loss to Old Dominion in an NCAA East Regional semifinal was a disappointing ending to a strange season for Maryland's women's basketball team.

The Terrapins' 26 victories were one short of a 1978 school record, and their five defeats, all to teams in the top 20, were the fewest since that same 1977-78 season. Still, for the first time in six years, Maryland didn't reach the regional final.

Maryland won a team-record 16 straight games before losing to North Carolina State at Cole Field House Jan. 29. The Terrapins dominated many teams this year, as guards Debbie Lytle and Marcia Richardson often made the fast break seem like child's play.

Yet, Maryland struggled in the big games. The Terrapins were only 5-5 against teams in the top 20, despite being ranked in the top eight all year themselves.

Perhaps the Old Dominion games tell the true story of the 1982-83 season. After that 16-0 start, Maryland lost two of its next four before the teams met at Cole Field House Feb. 9. Maryland Coach Chris Weller devised a 2-1-2 defense that converged on the Monarchs' 6-foot-8 player of the year, center Anne Donovan, whenever she touched the ball.

Offensively, the Terrapins' coach told Lytle, the ACC's assist champion, to penetrate and pass off to jump-shooting all-Americas Jasmina Perazic and Richardson. The strategy worked beautifully and Maryland won easily, 82-66.

Thursday night at Penn State, the Monarchs went to a man-to-man defense to shut off Lytle's penetrating and, when Maryland couldn't hit the outside shots, the Terrapins were in trouble. On the other end of the floor, Helen Malone's drives ended either with her scoring or passing to Donovan and Medina Dixon for easy inside baskets. Fifteen minutes into the game, ODU was in control, and breezed home, 74-57.

Maryland starters scored all 82 points in the February victory, and when foul trouble or poor play kept Lytle and Richardson on the bench for 13 minutes apiece Thursday, the Terrapins were in trouble. Aside from freshman forward Chequita Wood, Weller had no reserves to speak of this year.

With Lytle and Perazic, who came within 30 points of becoming Maryland's all-time top scorer, graduating, Weller has large holes to fill. Also, starters Richardson, Lea Hakala and Belinda Pearman will be seniors in 1984, so without some new talent, Maryland may be in trouble two years from now.

Barbara Bootz, a 6-foot-5 all-America center from Marlboro, N.Y., reportedly is leaning toward Maryland. The addition of such a player is essential if the Terrapins are to continue their string of eight straight postseason appearances and a record 111 straight rankings in the weekly top 20 poll.

Maryland would like a big center to allow Pearman and Hakala to concentrate on defense and scoring. Freshman Chris Vera will probably replace Lytle in the back court, but it will be up to Richardson, a second-team all-America, and Wood to fill Lytle's leadership role.

Maryland's schedule will be tougher next year, but with three returning starters and Wood on hand, the Terrapins should remain in the top 20. However, unless some of this year's unproven freshman or new recruits turn out well, Maryland may find rough going against the nation's top teams.