Whether the slights are real, Terps, Cardinal have plenty to prove
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Forget a trip to the Final Four. That's secondary. This is a good old-fashioned grudge match, which is admittedly peculiar considering that these two teams have almost no history of knocking heads. Between Maryland and Stanford, it's difficult to figure out which is flaunting a bigger boulder on its shoulder.
It's East Coast (they play basketball out West?) vs. West Coast (that darned, biased East Coast media!).
It's the team that many thought deserved a No. 1 seed (the Cardinal) and the one that got it (the Terrapins).
It's Stanford going all hoity-toity and stealing a recruit from Maryland by bragging about its fancy-pants academic reputation (the nerve!).
Heck, it's even dueling B-list celebrities, with Stanford showcasing its close encounter with Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Show me the money!") and Maryland countering with The Fonz ("Aaay!"), sometimes known as Henry Winkler.
While the weather outside is frightful (three days of slushy snow), the basketball figures to be red-hot inside Spokane Arena as two programs that feel -- wait for it -- disrespected seek validation.
Media exaggeration? Well, just ask any player from either team if she is playing with a chip on her shoulder because of perceived slights. The responses will range from "yes" to "absolutely."
Of course, they don't agree whose chip should be bigger.
"It's kind of hard for me to see ," Stanford's sophomore center Jayne Appel began with a strained look, choosing her words carefully. "Well, I can see how Maryland has a chip on their shoulder, but I think our team really got hit hard when we didn't get that No. 1 seed. It was just 'Wow!' "Stanford's case for a No. 1 seed? It was the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament champion and finished the season ranked No. 4 in both major polls. On its way to a 30-3 record, it rolled up a 12-1 mark against tournament teams, including victories over Tennessee, Rutgers (which beat Maryland) and Baylor. The lone defeat came against No. 1 Connecticut. Maryland, however, was given credit for producing an impressive 13-1 record in the rugged ACC and adding nonconference wins over LSU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. "Stanford was talking in the press conference like they deserved the No. 1 seed," Maryland forward Marissa Coleman said. "We actually were shocked [when Maryland got a No. 1 seed]. I'm not going to even say we felt like we deserved it." Regardless of the seeding debate, which should be settled Monday, both teams feel they have something to prove to a nation that ranks both programs a notch below the super elite. No Pac-10 team -- or any team west of Austin, Texas, for that matter -- has reached the Final Four since Stanford last went in 1997. Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer has won two national titles, but the last decade has been filled with as much disappointment as success. "When you have [a national championship], then you don't see it as being impossible," VanDerveer said. "It kind of looks like this really steep mountain to get to the top, and when you get up there you're like, 'Oh, the climb wasn't that hard.' "But then when you start over again, you're like, 'Whoa, this is hard again.' " Maryland can identify, though in a much more recent framework. It shocked many when it won the program's first national championship in 2006 with a group made up almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores. The future looked brilliant, but a second-round elimination last year caused some pundits to call the Terps' title a fluke. Four starters who experienced the extreme elation and overwhelming disappointment of those disparate outcomes will lead the charge against Stanford. The final tally might determine which season was the real fluke.
"We talk about that all the time," Coleman said. "This is going to be the year that defines this program."If it sometimes seems that the Terps are a team hungry for slights, there's a reason for that. Coach Brenda Frese aggressively cultivates that taste. She's not loath to post an offending article or quote in the locker room or to insert a bit of unfavorable television analysis into game film. "It's not us reading stuff," guard Kristi Toliver said. "But coach has to find something to motivate us so we can play with a chip on our shoulder. We listen to what she has to say and that gets people fired up." Then it's possible that Frese will highlight this tidbit. She spent four years recruiting guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude only to see Gold-Onwude fall for a last-minute sales pitch from VanDerveer. "You just can't say no to a Stanford education," Gold-Onwude explained. Oh, and the game part of the game? Both coaches suggested that rebounding and defense will determine who prevails. Both teams score in bunches. Both teams have options inside and out. Both are dominant on the boards. One difference is turnovers. When Maryland loses, it's often due to sloppiness. It committed at least 19 turnovers in its three losses this season (Rutgers, North Carolina and Duke). Stanford, on the other hand, was among the national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. Yet Maryland protected the ball well against Vanderbilt, while the Cardinal actually finished with more turnovers than assists against Pittsburgh. So go figure. Maybe all the gamesmanship and motivational angles and shoulders well-chipped are just a bunch of hooey, and these two talented teams are just going to have to fight it out. Said Frese, "Once you tip up the ball, all that goes out and we're just going to play."
Ted Miller covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at email@example.com.
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2008 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament
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