- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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BOSTON -- You watch what Maryland sophomore post player Crystal Langhorne does on the basketball court, and you figure it's always been this way for her. You think she's always had the upper hand, always been a terror to whomever was trying to stop her.
So would you believe that Langhorne went to basketball tryouts in the eighth grade consumed by dread of embarrassment?
"I couldn't even do a layup," Langhorne said. "I couldn't form my body in the right way even to do a layup. It was weird -- I was all nervous to try out, because I couldn't do a layup and all my friends could. They had played basketball longer. But I was tall and you get kept when you're so tall."
Indeed, Langhorne was "kept" because she was 5-foot-9 then and some coach surely figured, "It's going to click for her."
It didn't take too long. Langhorne scored 2,776 points in her prep career in Willingboro, N.J., and was heavily recruited. Brenda Frese won that battle, and then Langhorne won Atlantic Coast Conference rookie-of-the-year honors last season.
Now, she and the rest of the Terrapins are playing for a national championship. They meet Duke for the fourth time this season in Tuesday's NCAA title game (ESPN, 8:30 ET).
Langhorne, now 6-2, really figured out that layup thing. She leads the Terps in scoring with 17.4 points per game and rebounding with 8.6 boards per game.
"My parents weren't too much into sports; it was pretty much all education," Langhorne said of her childhood. "I would go outside and play, but I wasn't very serious about basketball then."
Langhorne has two older brothers, Cryhten and Chris, and an older sister, Camille. Cryhten played college basketball at University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
"I did a lot of shooting drills against my brothers," Langhorne said. "I didn't play games with them as much as people might think. But I did play pickup with them more sometimes as I got older. You know, boys don't usually like to pass the ball, but my brothers made sure I got it when I was playing against boys. So that really helped me out."
Last season, Langhorne and fellow freshman Laura Harper, who is from Elkins Park, Pa., quickly showed they were ready for prime time at Maryland.
But Harper ruptured her Achilles' tendon at practice the day after Christmas, and it was too late for a medical redshirt. Her season was over
after just nine games.
"I think it took me a month," Harper said of how long she brooded, privately, over losing most of her rookie season. "At the same time, I couldn't dwell more on that. I made it about my teammates, and giving them support. I was always giving Crystal a little pep talk in her ear."
Langhorne said you wouldn't have been able to tell that Harper was ever that down, because she focused on pumping everyone else up. And after all that, Frese said the end result was very positive.
"It had a silver lining in so many ways," Frese said. "From Crystal's end, it forced her to grow up a little quicker and have to accept more of a go-to role. And Jade Perry probably wouldn't have seen the minutes she got."
With Harper out, Perry averaged 20.1 minutes per game in 2004-05. This year, the minutes are slightly down for the the sophomore from Central City, Ky., but her averages (6.6 ppg and 4.4 rpg) are up.
And through both seasons, Langhorne has been a certified superstar. Last summer, she played on the U-19 World Championship team that won the gold for United States in Tunisia. She also led the U.S. team to a 5-0 record in the International Sports Invitational in San Diego. Langhorne was named USA Basketball's female athlete of the year for 2005.
In fact, Langhorne and Maryland freshman Marissa Coleman were both on that U-19 team, and their coach was Gail Goestenkors of Duke.
"We tried to recruit both of them," Goestenkors said. "We didn't even get in on Crystal, but Marissa we thought early on we had a pretty good shot at her because she and Monique [Currie] were friends."
Goestenkors was in the odd position of doing everything she could last summer to help Langhorne and Coleman get better, all the time realizing who might pay the price for that in the college season.
"With Crystal, she would make a great play, and I would be on the sidelines cheering, 'Yeah, Crystal!'" Goestenkors said. "And then I would be going, 'Oh, my God.' Because I knew I had to [coach] against her for three more years. So she's just an incredible player. They both are."
Frese certainly doesn't need any help developing players, but she didn't mind at all the work Goestenkors did with Langhorne and Coleman.
"I know they learned a lot," Frese said. "Marissa coming in from high school, the level of intensity that needed to take place in coach G's practice got her prepared and made my job a heck of a lot easier.
"And Crystal just gained so much valuable experience being a leader, and being named the tri-captain on that team. We challenged her last offseason with her range. She's developed it out to the free-throw line now, and she can shoot off the dribble. She's so powerful -- the way she can rebound and defend and just really go at you. It's pretty exciting to see what else she can do in the next two years."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.