Young guns lead Terps to ACC final

Updated: March 4, 2006, 8:36 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The last time Maryland won the ACC tournament, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver were infants.

THE DIRT ON DUKE
On Saturday, Duke was plagued by the same thing that hurt the Blue Devils in their last loss: too many missed layups.

Duke shot 36 percent (28-for-78) from the field against Maryland. Alison Bales and Chante Black were a combined 2-for-12.

But it's not all bad news for the Blue Devils, who will enter the NCAA Tournament having lost two of their last three games. These mistakes -- missed chippies and turnovers (they had 31 on Friday) -- are things the Dukies can correct themselves. They can take better care of the basketball. They can finish strong around the rim.

Duke coach Gail Goestenkors made sure to stay upbeat after Saturday's loss, pointing out to her team and the media that her players should hold their heads high, and reminding everyone that the Blue Devils did go 2-3 against Maryland and UNC.

Duke star Monique Currie, who had 18 points on 6-for-17 shooting, remains one of the best players in America off the dribble to the basket. And point guard Lindsey Harding is -- as requested -- playing more aggressive offensively, going 2-for-3 from downtown for 16 points in 37 minutes Saturday. Mistie Williams also remains consistent inside, scoring 12 points on a 6-for-9 effort.

Less than a week ago, ESPN.com's bracket expert, Charlie Creme, wrote that Duke would likely remain a No. 1 seed even if the Blue Devils lost to Maryland. He was sticking to that story Saturday night.

So was Goestenkors, who said, "I don't think this [loss] will affect our No. 1 seed."
-- Beth Mowins

Both would have been about 1 years old, more toddler than Terps.

But the poise of those two rookies and Maryland's underclassmen as a whole has easily been the most impressive thing in the ACC tournament so far.

On Saturday against second-ranked Duke, the Terps ended the ACC semifinal with three sophomores and two freshmen on the floor. And by the time they were through, Maryland beat the Blue Devils 78-70 to end a 14-game skid against Duke, which failed to reach the tournament's championship game for the first time in seven years.

Maryland's underclassmen accounted for all but five of the Terps' points, with Coleman and Toliver each scoring 16 points and sophomore Laura Harper finishing with a game-high 17. But the youngsters' most impressive performance of the night was how they responded to a 16-0 Duke run that gave the Blue Devils a one-point lead and could have knocked the sails out of the most experienced players in the country. Instead of faltering under the pressure, Maryland responded with a 10-0 run -- including five points in a 60-second span from Harper -- that ultimately put the game out of reach.

In crunch time, Toliver handled the basketball under pressure. When the Terps needed to get the ball inside to sophomore Crystal Langhorne, Toliver made sure it got there.

Coleman came up just as big, and throughout most of the game not only looked like a freshman All-American but an All-American regardless of class, finishing with 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting (including 2-for-4 on 3-point attempts) and 13 rebounds. She never looked rattled, despite the enormity of what was on the line.

And that is what should make Sunday's ACC championship game such a great matchup. The thing that sets No. 1 North Carolina apart right now is that the Tar Heels put five relentless, hard-working players on the floor. It's unbelievably tough to match that kind of intensity and physical play for 40 minutes, as evidenced by Saturday's 90-69 rout of N.C. State in the tournament's other semifinal.

But as Maryland's young players already demonstrated this season with a 98-95 overtime win over UNC on Feb. 9, the Terps are unaffected by the pressure. They have, in fact, the type of personality that relishes that challenge. It's not about the fear of the unknown, but rather the ability to embrace the opportunity to show what they can do on the big stage. Plus, the Terps have the added incentive of trying to secure a No. 1 seed. They have made a very strong case for one of the top spots, and another win over the nation's No. 1 team would almost certainly clinch one.

Despite Maryland's obvious momentum, however, North Carolina still has the edge heading into Sunday's final, primarily because the Tar Heels have a lot more experience playing in the ACC championship game. They routed Duke, 88-67, in the championship only a year ago. They have won six titles and played in 13 finals. Maryland, however, advanced to the title game for the first time in 13 years.

At this point, the ACC tournament MVP award could go to North Carolina's Camille Little. The junior sets the tone defensively atop the Tar Heels' 1-3-1 trap and has scored and rebounded well down the stretch. Little, who had a double-double in UNC's opener and has tallied 28 points and 15 boards in two games, embodies UNC's story this year -- she's not worried about personal glory. She's just a good student and a good kid and all she cares about is winning.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

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