Eight seasons ago, Maryland and Virginia were atop the women's college basketball world. The Cavaliers were ranked No. 1 in the nation and the Terrapins No. 3 when Maryland won the teams' first meeting of the season Jan. 15 at University Hall.
When the teams played again a little less than four weeks later at Cole Field House, Maryland was No. 1, Virginia was No. 2 and an overflow crowd of 14,500 saw the Cavaliers win, 75-74, while hundreds more were turned away at the door.
Saturday at University Hall, eight years to the day of that first meeting of the 1991-92 season, Maryland and Virginia will stage the 52nd game of a rivalry that goes back to 1977. This time, however, neither team is ranked--Virginia is barely drawing votes in the most recent poll--and tickets will not be hard to find.
"It's still a rivalry," said Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan, who is in her 23rd season with the Cavaliers. "Obviously, it doesn't have the same luster that it carried in the nineties."
From 1978 to 1994, Maryland and Virginia combined to win 11 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles and make 15 appearances in the final eight of the AIAW or NCAA tournaments, including six Final Four appearances.
In recent years, the Terrapins and Cavaliers have struggled to compete for the ACC championship, let alone the national title.
Neither has advanced to the ACC tournament final since 1994. Virginia's streak of eight consecutive appearances in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament ended in 1998, and last season, the Cavaliers failed to win their first-round game. Maryland has been to the NCAA tournament once in the past six seasons.
The teams' coaches say their fortunes are changing. Maryland, which started 0-9 last season and was 2-13 after 15 games, is 10-5 (2-3 ACC). Virginia, which began the season 4-4--its worst start in 22 years--has won seven straight to reach 11-4 (3-1).
But three ACC teams are ranked in this week's Associated Press top 25--North Carolina State, Duke and North Carolina--which means tougher tests lie ahead for the Terrapins and Cavaliers, who are a combined 1-6 against ranked teams this season.
"We're not that far [from being a top 25 team]," said Chris Weller, who is in her 25th season as Maryland coach. "I think next year we'll be very strong. I would think that we'd be in the top 25 next year."
Ryan said: "We're on the right track. We had a great recruiting year. I don't think we're very far away."
When the Cavaliers began this season outside the AP top 25, it was the first time they had been out of the national rankings since the final poll of the 1988-89 season. As if to confirm the pollsters' views, the Cavaliers lost to St. Joseph's--just the second time in the program's 27-year history they had lost their home opener.
Late last month, starting guard Erin Stovall abruptly left the team. Stovall, a preseason all-ACC pick, had been the Cavaliers' second-leading scorer, averaging 13.8 points per game. After a 2 1/2-week absence, Stovall asked Ryan if she could return to the team. Ryan said no and canceled Stovall's scholarship. At the same time, the team began its current winning streak.
"One of the things when you take a hit, you use it to learn from it," Virginia senior forward Lisa Hosac said. "That's what we did, and we started to gain momentum."
Maryland, which has fallen farther than Virginia, still is trying to find momentum.
Last season, the Terrapins suffered through a 6-21 season--the worst in the program's 28-year history. They had just one senior, guard Kelley Gibson, who missed the first semester because of a knee injury. Junior guard Tiffany Brown also did not play during that semester because of academic difficulties. That left six freshmen to carry the team.
"It [was] kind of hard that we were losing," sophomore forward Deedee Warley said, "but everybody always stayed positive."
Maryland's lack of experienced players was a result of turmoil that had surrounded the program. During the 1996-97 season, eight members of the 11-member team went to then-senior women's administrator Pat Nicol to complain about Weller's coaching style. After an investigation, Weller received a written reprimand. The following season, while the team still was reeling from the player revolt, two players were involved in a fistfight in the locker room.
As Maryland and Virginia dealt with these difficulties, many other teams in the ACC, and around the country, became stronger. Teams such as Duke, which last season played in the NCAA championship game, never were much of a threat until recently, when financial and administrative support at those schools increased.
Outside the ACC, schools such as defending national champion Purdue and Notre Dame have placed more emphasis on having nationally competitive women's basketball programs.
"It would be hard for any of us to maintain a dominance these days," North Carolina State Coach Kay Yow said. "We all have our up and down times. The broad base of quality players has greatly increased. Every team is getting more outstanding players. It just makes it so much more competitive."
Maryland and Virginia have shown improvement recently. The Cavaliers have moved into third place in the ACC standings. The Terrapins, who have not lost two games in a row this season, beat Florida State on Wednesday to tie for fourth in the ACC.
Weller and Ryan said their teams have good chemistry now and are displaying new confidence, which has helped produce the turnarounds. But another contributing factor has been the players' pride. No one wants to be faulted for failing to uphold each school's tradition of excellence in women's basketball.
As Hosac said of her team's slow start: "We're going to be known as the slumps of Virginia basketball. It's hard to have that label."
CAPTION: Chris Weller's women's basketball teams at Maryland once were among the nation's best, but they have made NCAA tournament only once in six years.