- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Drive with the accelerator to the floor and you might get where you're going before everyone else. Or you might not get there at all.
The Maryland Terrapins are unquestionably one of college basketball's high-performance vehicles. They proved it in Boston last year, beating North Carolina and Duke to claim the program's first national championship. They proved it through the first half of this season, racing out of the gate with 18 consecutive wins. And, to some extent, they proved it during a second-half rally that fell short in an 84-71 loss to North Carolina at the Comcast Center on Sunday.
The Terrapins win their way, playing an often frenetic style of basketball that knocks opponents on their heels, unable to withstand the physical pressure of playing five elite athletes coming at them from all angles.
But they aren't invincible, and on the heels of a blowout loss at Duke earlier in the month, Sunday's loss serves as a reminder of exactly how close to the edge they play, something that was easy to forget in the afterglow of last season's championship.
On the opening possession of Sunday's game, with an ACC-record 17,950 fans roaring their approval, senior Shay Doron threw an entry pass to the post that glanced off a North Carolina defender and nearly resulted in a turnover. Seconds later, she misfired on another entry pass from the other side of the court, this time handing the ball to the Tar Heels. So began a half that saw the Terrapins pile up more turnovers (14) than field goals (10).
That's not to single out Doron, who stepped up in the second half to key Maryland's rally, hitting 5 of 7 shots in the final 20 minutes on her way to a team-high 19 points. But when even the team's lone senior struggled to control the ball, trouble loomed.
Making matters worse was North Carolina's seemingly overnight transformation from a turnover-prone, up-and-down team -- arguably the closest thing in the country to Maryland -- into an efficient, half-court marvel. Like a boxer, the Tar Heels adjusted to a physical game, patiently (at least by their standards) probing Maryland's defense and conserving energy to fire off well-placed jabs.
Like a brawler, the Terrapins kept flinging haymakers by pushing tempo and attacking the basket on risky drives.
"When they only have 11 turnovers, and they're averaging 20, and we have 21, it's going to be tough to get possessions to be able to get good shots up," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said.
Some of the credit for Maryland's continuity issues goes to North Carolina. The Tar Heels again displayed the kind of size, quickness and length that can disrupt any offense without necessarily piling up blocks and steals.
"The way we go up and down the floor, we usually have a lot ourselves," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said of the turnover battle. "Even in the Final Four, they had 26 turnovers -- Kristi had 11 [she had 12] -- so we felt like if we pressured them and went after them with different looks, we could force them into some turnovers. And I guess it worked."
But some of the blame has to rest with a Maryland team that beat itself for the first 30 minutes.
"I thought Kristi and Sa'de [Wiley-Gatewood] did a tremendous job breaking the press," Frese said in defense of her two point guards, who combined for six turnovers. "I just felt like for 30 of the 40 minutes, we were on the back of our heels -- making soft passes, not displaying the kind of confidence we usually display on the offensive end."
On North Carolina's first possession of the second half, Rashanda McCants threw the same post entry that flummoxed Doron in the first half, finding Erlana Larkins on the block. Not feeling she had her position locked down, Larkins threw the ball back out to McCants, who waited for the post player to reestablish position and promptly picked up an assist when Larkins took her second entry pass and scored.
Rushing up court in retaliation, Maryland's Laura Harper was unable to corral a tipped pass before it rolled out of bounds for a turnover.
Coming back down court, Ivory Latta threw a pass from the top of the key to McCants in the corner. Passing on a hurried shot or a risky pass into a crowded post, McCants waited for the defense to drift ever so slightly toward her and returned the ball to Latta, who used her newfound inches of freedom to bury a 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 40-27.
That exchange hardly decided the game. The Tar Heels eventually expanded the lead to 20 points and then watched as Maryland cut it all the way to 67-66 with just more than three minutes to play. But the contrast in efficiency explained perfectly how Maryland dug itself a hole by refusing to change its approach.
Of course, the Terrapins also climbed back into the game by executing that same approach better -- taking advantage of their domination on the glass and knocking down some open jumpers.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Maryland's style, not that Frese likely needs the validation. The Terrapins had more turnovers than their opponents last season, and that played out just fine for them in Boston.
"Being up-tempo, you're going to have some turnovers in terms of the way we score," Frese said. "But obviously 21 turnovers against their pressure tonight was entirely too much to get enough possessions to be able to score."
And it's still early in the 2007 portion of the 2006-07 season, no matter how many people have announced they're running for the White House. Maryland played Duke four times and North Carolina three times last season. No team came out of that confluence of conference brawls unscathed. A Maryland win against Duke on Feb. 18 would quiet criticism, but win or lose, none of these teams will ultimately prove anything until the NCAA Tournament.
"I think we're playing two of the best teams in the country, and put us in the mix right there," Frese said. "I mean, goodness gracious, we're playing, in our conference, the No. 1 and the No. 2 teams in the country. And I think you have to have that kind of perspective, plain and simple."
But just as January ushers in a new year, it reminds us that the old year is gone for good. The race has begun anew, and the Terrapins are racing toward the finish line at breakneck speed. It's the only way they know.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.