Commentary

Coleman takes aim at final shot at another title

Originally Published: November 11, 2008
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

Marissa ColemanAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonAs a freshman, Marissa Coleman helped Maryland win the 2006 NCAA title.

How can you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been?

That was the question looming before Marissa Coleman as she prepared for her senior season at Maryland.

Coleman knew she wanted to win another national championship, to bookend her career with a second title to go with the one she won as a freshman.

But how should she approach this season, her last in a Maryland uniform? How could she do it without former teammates Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper, who had graduated to the WNBA?

The signs said this new season could be special. Fellow senior Kristi Toliver would help shoulder the leadership role. Plus, coach Brenda Frese would be back full time after missing moments last year with the birth of twin boys.

But … where should Coleman begin preparing for the emotional journey ahead? And then the answer came.

It wasn't from a friend, a coach, a mentor or guru. Instead, it was advice from a guy she has listened to probably more than anyone else: country singer Kenny Chesney.

Now, it takes a stretch of the imagination and a little translation … but Coleman found what she was looking for in Chesney's song, "I Go Back," particularly in the lyrics, "We all have a song that somehow stamped our lives, takes us to another place and time."

Coleman's "song" was the sounds from spring 2006. The noise of the crowd at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston as the Terrapins stunned Duke to win the national championship. The silence as 22,000 people held their breath waiting for Toliver's game-tying shot to reach its destination. The tickle of the twine as Coleman's game-winning free throws flushed through the net in overtime. The jubilant screams of her teammates embracing at center court. The voice inside her head trying to convince her that yes, this was real, she was a champion.

But it's a song Coleman hasn't heard since 2006. After celebrating the culmination of a dream and helping the Terps to the program's first national title, she put the trophy aside and moved on to trying to win three more titles before graduation. She refused to be sidetracked by pictures and pieces of the net and other reminders of Boston. She didn't want them around.

But then Maryland was dismissed from the NCAA tournament in a second-round upset to close her sophomore year. Last season ended with another heartbreaking loss (the top-seeded Terps fell 98-87 to No. 2 seed Stanford in the Elite Eight). Enough was enough. Coleman realized she had to go back to move forward. She would start listening to that song from Boston again to help get her through.

"It was such an amazing experience to win the title," Coleman said in a recent interview. "We really enjoyed it and quickly realized we wanted to win it again. So my sophomore year we put it out of our minds and we never really matched what we had the year before.

"Then my junior year, there were no pictures or reminders of the title because we were seeking redemption," Coleman said. "We thought we had it together until we lost to Stanford."

The Stanford loss ended Maryland's season and an era. The graduations of Langhorne and Harper broke up the championship team and scattered best friends around the country to pursue different dreams.

Marissa Coleman
AP Photo/Rob CarMarissa Coleman averaged 16.1 points (on 46 percent shooting from the field) and 7.4 rebounds as a junior last season.

"The three years I had with them …" Coleman said, her voice trailing off. "They were the reason I came to Maryland. Those two and Kristi, and to play for Coach B (Frese). We were always together on and off the court and it's a big adjustment not having them around."

The emotion in the Terrapin locker room last April was raw. Coleman had not expected to fall short. And it's a moment she won't forget.

"That scene in the locker room after Stanford is one of the hardest things I've ever been through," Coleman said. "It came to an abrupt halt and then it was over. We couldn't send the seniors out with another title.

"Kristi and I don't want to go out like that. I don't want to be in some locker room next March or April crying because it's over early."

And so the reminders of Boston are back. They hang on the walls of the house she shares with friends on the Maryland women's lacrosse team. There's the picture of Toliver's shot, of Coleman celebrating with arms raised in victory as she runs around the floor, and of the hugs with teammates at half court.

"Those pictures are a great source of inspiration and motivation," Coleman said. "I go back to that moment with the emotion and the hard work we needed to get there. I see the pictures and I get psyched up to play and I go to the gym to shoot. I know what it takes."

In fact, she and Toliver are the only players in college basketball right now that know what it takes to start for a national championship team. (Tennessee lost all its starters from the last two championship squads, and none of the former starters for the Kansas and Florida men's teams are around anymore).

"We've talked about the opportunity we have," Coleman said of she and Toliver. "We have a chance to leave here as the greatest class ever at Maryland. We want to win the ACC (they haven't done that yet) and we want to win the national championship. A trip to the Final Four shouldn't be a shock to anybody. We have some players you might not be familiar with but they can play."

Few in the country can play like Coleman, who ranks as one of the most versatile talents the college game has ever seen. Opposing coaches often refer to her as a nightmare matchup because of her combination of size, speed, strength and range.

She was slowed over the summer by a stress fracture in her left foot, but that hasn't affected her preparation. And don't be surprised if Coleman steps up her defensive game this season.

"The effort is there," Frese said. "She is determined to round out her game this year. She'll be more versatile on both ends of the floor."

With a laugh, Coleman admitted defense is something she has struggled with.

"But I want to prove I can do it and I've improved technically," she said. "I know I need to be more conscious of stopping people."

Opponents are always conscious of trying to stop her. They hope it will be easier without Langhorne and Harper to worry about. They hope Coleman will be busy trying to lead while carrying a heavier load. But Coleman said she's ready to do it all.

"I worked on the mental and physical aspects of my game this summer," Coleman said. "I'm ready to lead like Lang(horne) and Harp(er), and without them, I know I'll be needed more on the boards this year. I want to be more consistent shooting the 3, and I think I've added some counter moves to get my shot off down low."

Langhorne and Harper gave Coleman some great perspective last spring after the season ended: Be aggressive. And that it's not selfish to make plays if that's what is in the best interest of the team. They reminded her how quickly time flies and how much the younger players will be relying on her.

Frese already has seen Coleman make the transformation.

"She's watched great mentors and role models the last three years," Frese said. "She's always taken a back seat, and now she's taking ownership of this team. She's vocal and she's got the respect of her teammates. Her leadership will be her best intangible. She's always about putting team first."

Coleman also consults close friend and Duke senior Abby Waner. The fellow All-ACC honoree is also trying to bounce back from a difficult season to end her career on a high note.

"We talk just about every day," Coleman said. "Despite the obvious Duke-Maryland conflict, we are very similar people. We have similar personalities and competitive fires. And we both find ourselves in similar situations of trying to lead our teams toward ACC and national championships."

And then, of course, there is Kenny. She can always go back to Chesney's music to get fired up. She can go back to Boston for the sights and sounds of what it takes to win a title. She can motivate herself to try to win another.

And Coleman knows there's another Chesney song that would be appropriate for her senior season and her championship aspirations:

"Never Wanted Nothin More."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.