- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

BOSTON — Team Second Fiddle — to Gary Williams’ program for years and Jim Larranaga’s GMU guys the past four weeks — became the last area college basketball team standing this season.

Continuing their rapid ascent up the women’s basketball charts, the Maryland Terrapins, deemed too shaky defensively by some and too inexperienced by nearly all to contend with tournament favorite North Carolina, defeated the Tar Heels 81-70 last night in the first semifinal of the women’s Final Four.

Playing in the Final Four for the first time since 1989, Maryland (33-4) will play in its first-ever championship game at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow against Duke or LSU.

North Carolina finished the season 33-2, both losses courtesy of the Terps.

“We proved to the country that we should be the No.1 team in the country,” Maryland freshman Kristi Toliver said. “People can’t sit still in here, we’re so excited. I’m about to burst.”

Victory was sealed by Shay Doron’s free throws with 14.2 seconds left. For one of the few times all night, coach Brenda Frese sat in her designated chair. She tapped assistants Jeff Walz and Joanna Bernabei on their knees, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”

A half hour later, outside the Maryland locker room, Frese said her thoughts centered on “how special this team is.”

“They continue to keep proving people wrong and show what team basketball is about. Nobody believed, besides the Maryland fans, that this team could accomplish something like this. This team is something very special,” she said.

This wasn’t expected from Maryland because of its youth — four sophomores and two freshman see major minutes — and its tournament history, consecutive second-round exits.

Now the Terps, after George Mason’s loss to Florida in the men’s Final Four on Saturday, can finally take center stage.

“And now we have the chance to show the D.C. area that we play hard and know how to get Ws,” sophomore forward Jade Perry said. “We want to bring the trophy back home to our fans.”

The fans the Terps do have are loyal, trekking from Greensboro, N.C., to State College, Pa., to Albuquerque, N.M., to Boston in the past month. They include Oakland Raiders running back and program booster Lamont Jordan and a band member who held a sign that featured a marriage proposal to Toliver.

Sophomore forward Laura Harper led Maryland with 24 points, and Crystal Langhorne, the program’s first All-American in 16 years, added 23 points.

Leading 52-48 midway through the second half, Maryland went on a 13-6 run, which included a thunderous pick set by Marissa Coleman, to lead 65-54 with 7:10 remaining. The lead, though, was cut to 70-68 with 2:04 remaining.

But showing composure well beyond its experience, Maryland finished the game with a 11-2 spurt.

“We knew they were going to do that,” Doron said of North Carolina’s late charge. “We had to contain their best players, who were tearing us up, and we did that by staying relaxed and not turning on each other like some teams would have done.”

That Doron hit a key pull-up jumper with 1:37 remaining and then two clinching free throws is appropriate. When the Terps were in the dumps, she took a chance and signed with Maryland — and more specifically, then-first-year coach Frese — in November 2002.

Before Frese’s arrival that spring, weeks after guard Juan Dixon led the men’s team to the national championship, Maryland women’s basketball was a rumor on campus. The women’s team hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game in 10 years.

Dogged recruiting by Frese and her staff landed Doron from New York, Harper from Pennsylvania, Langhorne from New Jersey, Perry from Kentucky, Ashleigh Newman from Tennessee, and, regionally, Toliver from Harrisonburg, Va., and Coleman from Cheltenham, Md.

After a 10-18 debut season under Frese, Maryland has enjoyed seasons of 18, 22 and 33 victories. One more win, and the Terps will have their second net-cutting ceremony is as many weeks.

“It’s such a great feeling that some people might not understand,” Perry said. “We proved people wrong. Hopefully, we’ll gain even more respect with the way we play in the championship game.”

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