- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

BOSTON — A month ago, after the Maryland women’s basketball team lost to North Carolina in the ACC tournament final, Terrapins coach Brenda Frese looked ahead to the NCAA tournament.

“This is just the start of something,” she said.

Was it ever.

Playing with the poise and execution of seniors, the youthful Terps moved a step closer to the program’s first national championship with an 81-70 win over tournament favorite North Carolina last night in the women’s Final Four at TD Banknorth Garden.

The Terps (33-4), in their first Final Four since 1989, will play in their first championship game tomorrow night at 8:30 against Duke, which defeated LSU 64-45 in the other semifinal. It will be the first all-ACC national title game.

“All season long, this team has played with a chip on their shoulder, and I really felt like they had to fight for respect every step of the way,” Frese said. “They made a lot of believers tonight. To be able to continue taking steps with this team — I think people can see now what makes this group so special.”

Maryland continued its semi-mastery of North Carolina. The Terps handed the Tar Heels (33-2) both of their losses this season and, dating back to last season, three of their last five.

“I didn’t feel like we were in rhythm,” Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “We just weren’t hitting on all cylinders like we normally do.”

North Carolina undoubtedly was affected by the knee injury sustained by point guard Ivory Latta in the first half. Although she quickly returned, Latta wasn’t her self, shooting 5-for-17 for 14 points.

But Maryland’s offensive efficiency was too much for Latta and Erlana Larkins (28 points) to overcome. The Terps hit their first seven shots and shot 56 percent for the game.

Sophomore Laura Harper scored a career-high 24 points, and Crystal Langhorne added 23 points as Maryland outscored North Carolina 50-28 in the paint. Just as important was rebounding. The Terps won that battle 41-31, including 21-12 in the second half.

Kristi Toliver overcame 12 turnovers to score 14 points, and Marissa Coleman added 12 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Coleman’s thunderous pick on Tar Heels guard Alex Miller also contributed to Maryland’s game-changing run in the second half.

“We knew going in we would have to rebound,” Coleman said. “We felt like if we outrebounded them by 10, our game plan would be executed.”

Up nine points with less than five minutes left, Maryland had to withstand a late North Carolina charge that cut the advantage to 70-68 with 2:05 left. The Terps answered with a game-ending 11-2 run that included 7-for-8 free throw shooting and key buckets by Shay Doron and Harper.

Doron’s pull-up jumper came in transition off a miss by Larkins and made it 73-68 with 1:37 left.

“I had that same opportunity in the first half and read the play wrong and tried to give it to Crystal and turned it over,” Doron said. “At halftime, the coaches were like, ‘That’s your shot. It goes in every time.’”

The first half featured 10 ties and five lead changes, and Maryland led 36-34. But North Carolina took the lead thanks to an unexpected source. Little-used senior Jessica Sell hit consecutive 3-pointers in the opening three minutes to give the Tar Heels a 42-40 lead.

But Maryland was able to regain the momentum by pounding it inside to Harper, who scored six straight points to give the Terps the lead for good.

Leading 52-48, the Terps went on a 13-6 run, capped by a 3-pointer by Toliver with 8:10 left.

North Carolina, which led the nation in scoring this season (82.6), got untracked but only momentarily.

With its lead reduced to one possession, the Terps did not commit a turnover in the last two minutes.

“We wanted to keep our poise and understand time, score and possession,” Frese said. “We needed to just continue executing on offense.”

Now the team that was supposed to be a year away is one win away from capturing the national title.

“Being young, it makes us better because we have nothing to lose,” Coleman said. “We just go out there and have fun.”

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