- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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BOSTON -- Mistakes matter a great deal less when there's no tomorrow to worry about.
Kristi Toliver, Marissa Coleman and Shay Doron were anything but perfect on Tuesday night at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, but a host of mistakes from Maryland's guards were forever stricken from the record when the trio combined for just enough big plays to earn the Terrapins a 78-75 overtime win and the national championship.
There is an undeniable quality that separates the championship game of the NCAA Tournament from any other night in basketball. From entire blocks of fans launching into impromptu chants more than 20 minutes before the national anthem to cameras flashing like a fireworks display at the tip, there is something different in the air (other than the water leaking from the roof of the arena) before, during and after the last game anyone will play until November.
It's an environment where mistakes cease representing something to worry about later in the season and corrections come not through practice and preparation, but through refocused energy, fadeaway jump shots and gutsy decisions.
So after playing 20 minutes of what coach Brenda Frese labeled some of the team's "ugliest" basketball of the season, the same group of guards that took a back seat all season to the post combo of Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper rescued the Terrapins with big shot after big shot.
No shot was bigger, and no redemption more needed, than Toliver's 3-pointer to tie the score at 70 with six seconds remaining. As a result, the freshman point guard is almost certainly the first player to make an all-tournament team after committing 12 turnovers in the semifinal round and missing eight shots in the first half of the final.
"We were on the bench and we knew we were going to Kristi Toliver and we knew she wanted to take the shot," Frese said of the freshman who was just 5-for-17 from the floor before the last shot.
After Sunday's win against North Carolina, Frese played down Toliver's turnovers, sounding downright prophetic in talking about her mental toughness.
"I think the thing that makes her so special, as you witnessed her having a tough night with the turnovers, but she kept her head in the game," Frese said. "And how many freshmen do you know who would, or any player, let's not tab her as a freshman, make that many mistakes and still be able to keep their head in the game and stay poised and knock down some really key shots?"
But no single moment, even the game-tying shot, captured that mental toughness as well as Toliver drawing Lindsey Harding's fifth foul with 34 seconds left in overtime of the final.
In addition to providing the free throws that gave Maryland the lead for keeps, the play knocked Duke's primary ball handler out of the game. It was an absence that loomed large on the final play, when freshman Abby Waner struggled to get the ball up court. Functional in that respect, the play was also symbolic of a complete reversal of fortune, as much of the Blue Devils' early dominance stemmed from Harding's individual dominance against Toliver.
But if Toliver's shot and overtime free throws were a fitting end to the second-biggest comeback in title game history, the play of Coleman and Doron in sparking the rally was just as important.
Another freshman who rarely displayed any signs of immaturity this season, Coleman sounded like a veteran in talking about the overall team mood at halftime.
"There were a lot of emotions going on. Initially we were all upset with our first-half performance. And then, we all just realized that we had been in this position so many times. And that when we stepped foot out of the locker room, we all needed to have a different attitude."
To say they managed that is an understatement. Not even Tony Robbins channels positive energy like the Terrapins did coming out in the second half.
From a completely dysfunctional first half to this: Coleman hitting a pair of fadeaway jumpers, the second cutting Duke's once massive lead to a single point. And what had once been an evenly divided crowd was now solidly behind the Terrapins, riding the wave of emotion emanating from Coleman's impossible shots.
It was a second-half performance born from naïve desire that wasn't dimmed by the harsh light of reality.
"Last year," Coleman said, "when Kristi and I were here sitting in the arena, and we both looked at each other at one point, and I don't remember which game it was, and just said we're going to be here next year and we're going to win a national championship."
Coleman and Toliver dreamed the same dream shared by all freshmen who don't know any better. And at times on Tuesday night, they played like most freshmen do in a final. But the difference was instead of letting the situation derail their dream, they changed the situation to fit their dreams.
And it was Doron, the team elder as a junior, who answered first with two foul shots after Duke's Jessica Foley hit a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 13 points with less than 15 minutes to play. And it was Doron, after drawing Monique Currie's fourth foul with just more than six minutes to play, who knotted the score at 58 on two more free throws.
Missing in action on offense for much of the postseason -- she scored just 27 total points in games against St. John's, Baylor and North Carolina -- Doron finished the night with 16 points, finally matching her emotional leadership with point production.
Frese summed up the combined efforts of her precocious freshmen and her resilient junior best.
"I think you were able to see as the game unfolded our leadership and our veterans really kind of kept us in the game, and then once our two young players were able to settle down, they just played with so much confidence."
Toliver, Coleman and Doron missed 25 shots against Duke, shooting a combined 36 percent from the field and turning the ball over 10 times.
But with their season on the line and Duke on the verge of a championship, the backcourt made up for all their mistakes by stepping up and proving the Terrapins were the nation's best team.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
19dBonnie D. Ford