Maybe we should have seen Terp comeback coming

Updated: April 17, 2006, 11:23 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Maryland made all six dominoes fall and won the national championship. Did you think that comeback from down 13 to Duke in the title game was amazing? Sure it was. But put it in context with everything else Maryland did in this tournament, and maybe we shouldn't have been amazed.

Kristi Toliver
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaKristi Toliver's 3-pointer kept Maryland's title hopes alive.

Maybe we should have expected it.

The story of this NCAA title for the Terps -- who won 78-75 in overtime Tuesday -- was written over the entire length of the tournament.

Remember the second round when, with four minutes left, the Terps trailed St. John's by two points? Ashleigh Newman missed a layup, but Kristi Toliver got the rebound and passed it out to Newman for a 3-pointer. She sank that one.

St. John's tied the game shortly afterward, but then Crystal Langhorne got a layup with 2:22 left that gave Maryland the lead for good. After that 81-74 victory, coach Brenda Frese said part of the problem had been that the Terps had been trying to play the perfect game and that they just needed to relax.

Meanwhile, in the Terps' locker room after that game, Shay Doron talked about how much she thought her coach had improved since the first time Frese had led Maryland to the NCAA Tournament, in 2004.

"I can remember a play where it was two of us freshmen, really nervous, second round of the NCAA Tournament and she was just really mad at us," Doron said. "Even after that game, she knew she was wrong about it, but it was too late. But she learned. And tonight, she was just really poised, calm and smiling."

The Terps saw that smile for the rest of the tournament … although they also saw Frese get mad when she needed to.

Maryland went to Albuquerque for the Sweet 16, where the Terps blew the doors off defending national champion Baylor. Next, though, they had to survive a fantastic defensive effort from Utah in the Elite Eight.

The Terps got the break they needed in that game when a hobbled Shona Thorburn made only one of two free throws with 7.8 seconds left, which tied the game. It went into overtime, where Maryland won 75-65.

In the Final Four, the Terps were going against a North Carolina team that had defeated them in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. Sure, Maryland had won the teams' regular-season meeting, in overtime, on Feb. 9. But the Tar Heels were the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament and eager to avenge that one blemish that was on their record.

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Relive the Maryland vs. Duke 2006 NCAA championship game at 9 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN Classic.

Of course, it didn't happen that way. The best chance teams have to beat the Tar Heels is to be as physical with them as they are with you. North Carolina had no Plan B when it couldn't beat the Terps with sheer athletic superiority.

Maryland's 81-70 win over the Heels set up a title-game matchup with a program that had owned the Terps for the past decade or so -- until the ACC tournament semifinals last month.

In reality, these Maryland players didn't really have much to do with that Duke domination over the Terps. The "new" Maryland under Frese started gaining ground on Duke in 2004.

By this season, Maryland had reason to believe it could beat the Devils. And although the Terps didn't do that the first two times they met, this is a group that doesn't get discouraged.

Monday, in the media session leading up to the title game, all the Maryland players talked about how they believed they were just as good as Duke. None of them took the path of, "Well, we're the underdogs, so there's no pressure on us." Instead, the Terps welcomed the pressure.

Admittedly, it looked in the first half Tuesday night as if the Terps' shell had finally cracked. Lindsey Harding and Monique Currie were everywhere on the perimeter for Duke's defense, making entry passes -- and really just about all offensive progress -- very difficult for the Terps.

Marissa Coleman
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaFreshman Marissa Coleman netted 10 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.

Marissa Coleman had two consecutive turnovers and looked disgusted and dejected. Then there was a timeout, at which point the "smiley" Frese was not the one who greeted -- if that's the word -- Coleman as she came off the court.

No, this was the in-your-face Frese, and Coleman said later it was just what she needed.

"She knows that's the best way to get to me," Coleman said. "My attitude was horrible the first half. I was hanging my head because I wasn't knocking down shots and had a lot of turnovers.

"It wasn't anything negative. She was just saying that I've been playing this game for so long, just go out there, have fun, put a smile on my face. The team needed me in order to win, so I just had to pick up my attitude."

Coleman certainly did that in the second half. In fact, she could have been Most Outstanding Player of this Final Four, an award that went to Laura Harper, who was also very deserving. But, my goodness, Coleman had two terrific games. She did some major heavy lifting in the rebounding department.

Against North Carolina, Coleman had 12 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Against Duke, it was 10 points and 14 boards. Coleman and fellow freshman Toliver made huge plays in the comeback.

It was Toliver who made the shot that will join a short list of the most memorable in women's NCAA Tournament history. That was the 3-pointer over the 6-foot-7 Alison Bales that tied the game. And Toliver had also hit a jumper with 25 seconds left.

All night, she had not been shy about putting it up. That confidence comes from within, but it also comes from Frese.

"In my opinion, big-time players want the ball in big-time situations," Toliver said. "So I wanted to take the shot."

And it swished, fitting in with everything else Maryland did right in this tournament.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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