- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

BOSTON — Led by two players who struggled mightily in the first half, Maryland won its first women’s basketball national championship at TD Banknorth Garden 78-75 in overtime over Duke last night.

Freshman Kristi Toliver hit a 3-pointer with 6.1 seconds remaining in regulation to cap a 13-point comeback and hit two free throws with 34.2 seconds left in overtime to give Maryland the lead for good. Freshman Marissa Coleman then hit two free throws to build the lead to three points, which held up when Duke’s Jessica Foley’s 3-pointer grazed the front rim, triggering bedlam from the Terrapins.

Maryland (34-4) captured its first national title in its first NCAA final game appearance.

The Terps finished the season 6-0 in overtime games.

“I didn’t have to say a word to them before overtime. They know it’s their time,” said coach Brenda Frese, hired four years ago this month to rebuild the Maryland program. “They played with so much confidence.”

Maryland won with youth on the floor — two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup — and on the sideline, Frese is only 35 years old.

“Age is just a number,” Frese said. “When you have kids that believe, and believe in each other, and have that kind of confidence, you can accomplish anything.

“It’s unbelievable to see what they’ve done as a team this year.”

Toliver, who missed eight of her nine first-half shots, forced overtime by hitting a 3-pointer over 6-foot-7 Alison Bales.

“We ran a lot of screens on that play, and Alison stepped up, and I just went through my follow-through,” Toliver said. “I shot it with a lot of confidence, and I wanted to take that shot.”

Even before the championship game, it was a given that more high times will be ahead for the Terps. The team’s profile has been raised the past two years, especially by the “Under The Shell” television show. Athletic director Debbie Yow gave Frese, football coach Ralph Friedgen and men’s basketball coach Gary Williams a choice between the traditional, talk-over-the-game-tape coaches’ show or a reality show. Frese and Friedgen (“Fridge TV”) chose reality, and $100,000 is spent each season to produce a high-quality show.

For the women’s team, the show has been a boon — Frese has opened all of her program’s doors to the cameras, and now the average fan knows Toliver’s story as well as men’s team star D.J. Strawberry’s.

“For 12 years as athletic director, I’ve dealt with a number of men who have faithfully followed” Maryland athletics, Mrs. Yow said. “In the last two years, this profile of booster had never shown interest in women’s basketball.

“Now, they know the players’ names, they know who does what best, they know that Crystal [Langhorne] is our best inside threat, and they know Laura Harper missed last year with an Achilles’ injury.”

To capitalize on the Final Four appearance, the Maryland athletic department is running a promotion on its Web site, selling 2006-07 season tickets at discounted prices.

The Terps averaged 4,814 fans for 16 home games this season.

Maryland’s season started with high hopes internally, but tepid ones on a regional and national level. The Terps were picked to finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, behind Duke and North Carolina. Which they did. And they were voted No. 14 in the Associated Press preseason top 25. Which is where they won’t be when the final poll comes out.

The preseason featured a win over then-No. 9 Michigan State and a loss to then-No. 2 Tennessee in the Virgin Islands. It was there, Coleman and Toliver would say months later, that they realized they had no time to be freshmen. They needed to produce, or they would be headed to the bench.

“We had a great game against Tennessee, and after that game, we felt we let a win slip away, but we still came home with a lot of confidence,” Coleman said.

A so-so nonconference season left Maryland 13-1, but still with questions. The Terps had shown the ability to beat North Carolina, but entered the ACC season with 12 consecutive defeats to Duke and second-round exits the past two years. Would Maryland be good enough to make the NCAA tournament’s second weekend?

The answer became a resounding “yes” on the night of Feb. 9 in Chapel Hill, N.C., when Ashleigh Newman hit a desperation 3-pointer to force overtime, and Coleman scored five straight points in the extra session to give the Terps a 98-95 win over top-ranked North Carolina, the first time Maryland had beaten a No. 1 team in 13 years and the Tar Heels’ first home-court loss in 31 games.

Although Duke continued its mastery of Maryland four days later with a come-from-behind 90-80 win in Durham, four straight wins ended the Terps’ regular season. After escaping Georgia Tech (14-15) in the opening game of the ACC tournament, Maryland fired another warning shot with a 78-70 win over Duke in Greensboro, N.C.

Up and down, the Terps roster are impressive stories. The veteran starter Shay Doron, a junior, who surprised many when she spurned other top programs to sign with Maryland. The sophomore forwards Langhorne and Harper, who teamed over the last month to become a potent 1-2 (or 2-1) punch, making life miserable for opposing post players. And the precocious freshmen — Toliver and Coleman, playing well beyond their years. The talents of those five players were evident throughout the NCAA tournament run. All five averaged double figures for the season.

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