- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- When Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver came to Maryland, the Terps were on their way to putting the pieces back together for a program that had once been near the top of the women's hoops world.
And, certainly, had been firmly at the top of the ACC. Maryland was the dominant program in the league when it started sponsoring women's basketball in the 1970s. The year Toliver and Coleman turned 2 years old, 1989, Maryland made its second trip to the women's Final Four.
But it would be 17 years before the Terps would make it that far again, and they would do it with the contributions of two 19-year-old freshmen who would spend the rest of their careers in the spotlight provided by winning a national championship.
The thing is, that's a really tough act to follow. Toliver and Coleman have been trying to do it for three years, and that quest fell short Monday night when the Terps lost 77-60 to Louisville in the Raleigh Regional final.
Maryland had lost key players Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper from last season's team. And so just making the Elite Eight this season -- plus leading Maryland to its first ACC tournament title in 20 years -- was a pretty terrific accomplishment for Toliver and Coleman.
Yes, you could point all that out but it wouldn't do much good for how the two seniors were feeling.
"The media might not have had [big] expectations for us [to start the season], but in our locker room, we did," Coleman said, her voice breaking in the postgame news conference. "We knew we could make it to the Final Four, and we fell short. [But] we accomplished a lot of great things. I wouldn't have wanted to spend my senior season with a better group of girls or coaching staff than what I did this year."
Strategically, this battle went to Louisville. Cardinals coach Jeff Walz told his team that it had to stop Coleman from going left, which is her preference. Force her right, he said, and we have a chance to slow her.
Coleman said she felt kind of bottled up most of the night, finishing with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting in a game where that just wasn't enough. Toliver had 14 points, but Maryland had 21 turnovers and just 10 assists. The Terps shot 38.9 percent from the field and got no points from their bench.
"They did a really good job making us uncomfortable and throwing different looks at us," Toliver said. "They wanted to be physical from the beginning, and we never really could get into a rhythm. You've got to give credit to them."
In Maryland's locker room afterward, Toliver seemed the one most able to put things into perspective, difficult as that is when the grief over your college career being over is still so fresh.
Maryland went to the NCAA tournament 10 times in the first 12 years of the tournament's existence, 1982-93. But then, over the next 10 years, Maryland was in the NCAA field only twice. It was under coach Brenda Frese, in 2004, that Maryland started its run of six NCAA appearances in a row. For Toliver and Coleman, their careers ended with a national championship, a Sweet 16 loss and two Elite Eight defeats.
"We've both had great careers and we're happy and proud for each other," Toliver said. "It's unfortunate we had to go out like this.
"I'm very proud of what we've done in our four years. The reason we came to Maryland was to bring it back, to have that tradition again and be the first to win a national championship."
Toliver also talked about how she had to focus on the fact that her basketball career as a whole is not over, as she will move on to the WNBA. So will Coleman, but Monday night she wasn't ready to think about that at all.
"When you experience such a high so early [in your career], you want it to come as much as possible," Coleman said. "I know Kristi and I didn't think this was how it was going to end.
"It's never going to be the same [in the WNBA]. I'm not going to have these great teammates or play for Maryland again. I have something to look forward to, but it's not going to be as great as what it has been at Maryland. When the times come, I'm going to embrace it. But right now, I'll try to enjoy these last few moments with my teammates."
A broader view is that this is the cycle of life in athletics -- some days you are the windshield and some days you are the bug, as the saying goes. We were offering these same questions to Duke senior Monique Currie in her somber locker room in Boston in April 2006, while youngsters Coleman and Toliver celebrated the national championship.
Three years later, they are the ones who must look ahead through tears. But Frese certainly doesn't want them to cry very much.
"These two are winners," she said. "What an amazing career the two of them have had."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.
15dBonnie D. Ford