It was only a month ago that the University of Maryland women's team went to Charlottesville to play third-ranked Virginia and was given a lesson in basketball.
At one point in the game, with Virginia leading by 30 points, the Terrapins couldn't get the ball past midcourt and had to call three straight timeouts. At that stage, Maryland Coach Chris Weller wasn't concerned about the outcome. She just wanted her team to learn.
What a difference one month can make. The same Maryland players, at least in name, taught the rest of the conference a lot, winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Monday night in Fayetteville, N.C. The victory gave Maryland an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, starting next Wednesday. Virginia, still ranked third in the country, should be the only team in the area to receive one of the at-large bids for the 40-team tournament. Bids will be announced Sunday.
The Terrapins came into the ACC tournament with a 14-12 record overall and 6-8 ACC mark, needing to win the championship to get an NCAA bid.
Starting three freshmen and a sophomore, Maryland stunned everyone by defeating North Carolina State, 77-55, in the first round, Virginia, 92-68, in the semifinals and North Carolina, 90-74, in the championship. All three beat the Terrapins twice in the regular season.
"It's a team that has seemingly put everything together at the right time," said Wolfpack Coach Kay Yow. "I don't think anybody expected them to play this way because they're a young team. They played with intensity and made few errors.
"The thing right now is that they're all making major contributions. Lisa Brown is hitting from the outside and Chequita Wood is going inside. Subrena Rivers is playing good defense and not taking bad shots. I think the difference is that they've found the chemistry."
Said Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan before Monday's championship game: "They've got nothing to lose, for one. And they have excellent talent. It was matter of time before they put it together."
Brown, a sophomore who had averaged only 8.4 points during the season, scored 16 in the first half against North Carolina State. And senior Wood, slowed at times this season with an injured knee, was perhaps the best defensive player and made the all-tournament team along with freshman forward Vicky Bullett and guard Deana Tate, a redshirt freshman.
Tate, the tournament's most valuable player, could have been ruled ineligible this season when the NCAA reprimanded Weller for a recruiting violation in November. Weller had allowed Tate, who was not enrolled as a student, to travel to some away games, a violation of NCAA rules.
But Tate was declared eligible. She outplayed all-America candidates Donna Holt of Virginia and Pam Leake of North Carolina, scoring 27 points against Virginia and 32 in the championship game. When she wasn't making an easy layup on the fast break or scoring on a short jumper, she was passing off to Bullett and Wood inside.
Weller also relied primarily on five players in the tournament -- in contrast to the regular season, when she changed her starting lineup several times. She found the winning combination in Tate, Bullett, Wood, Brown and Rivers, who played no fewer than 31 minutes each in the championship. Because Weller was looking for more quickness, center Carolin Dehn-Duhr, the second-leading scorer and second-team all-ACC, averaged only 17 minutes in Fayetteville.
"We have come a long way," said Weller, who won her sixth ACC tournament championship. "It might be the best championship . But you always remember the first time. This is probably the biggest surprise."