- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

HARTFORD, Conn. — They talked about avoiding it and worked hard to eliminate it, but with a starting lineup of one 21-year-old and four 20-year-olds, sometimes what is preached and practiced is easily forgotten.

Such was the case with the Maryland women’s basketball team.

Still riding their heroics of last year, some players thought they could simply turn their games on when needed. Playing at unranked Middle Tennessee State to start the season? Semi-coast and win by four points. Facing No. 18 Michigan State at home? Crank it up a notch and win by 40.

“That’s what we thought we could do, to be honest,” sophomore Marissa Coleman said. “But you can’t turn that switch on and off and we realize that now.”

And although big-game results — losses to North Carolina and Duke — have been discouraging, the Terps feel they are set for another long NCAA tournament run, starting today against Harvard at the Hartford Civic Center.

In the rugged Dayton Region that features Tennessee, Oklahoma and Ohio State, the Terrapins know they’ll have to turn it on — and keep it on — throughout the next two weeks.

Maryland’s “B” or “C” game will probably be good enough against a Crimson team that is playing in the tournament for the first time in four years. But the Terps want to hit their stride early today, especially when returning from a 15-day layoff.

“In the preseason, we knew we would get everybody’s best shot. But as soon as the season started, we didn’t understand what that meant,” sophomore Kristi Toliver said. “The first game, against Middle Tennessee State, that was a wake up call. We knew then no game would be easy.”

Last year’s championship drew the attention of every opponent, produced heightened expectations from those on the program’s periphery and increased self-applied pressure.

For part of the nonconference season, Maryland tried to play perfect. The wins still came, but the style points were occasionally lacking. After starting the season 18-0, the Terps went 3-3 in their next six.

“We definitely haven’t played Maryland basketball at all this season,” Coleman said. “That’s been our biggest problem. But we kind of figured on that because we put so much pressure on ourselves, we tried to play perfect. We turned winning the title last year into pressure instead of using it to be confident.”

Junior Crystal Langhorne said the Terps haven’t won a big game all season and Toliver said the 97-57 win over Michigan State in January probably was the only time the Terps put together a full 40 minutes.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese acknowledged the flip-the-switch attitude was noticeable early in the season.

“Part of that shows their youth,” she said. “From our staff’s end, we had to continue to challenge them through film and practice to get them to understand that. Hopefully, it’s something we’ve outgrown and it will help us in the tournament.”

Toliver said the Terps learned their lesson during their first loss, an 81-62 decision at Duke on Jan. 13.

“That game comes to mind because we learned we couldn’t just walk into a game saying, ‘It’s time to go,’ ” Toliver said. “The few days before that game, practice was pretty slow, pretty laid back. And it showed in the game. We learned that if we practice consistently hard and well, we’ll be prepared come game time.”

Harvard, meanwhile, had to turn it on to turn its season around just to reach the tournament. The Crimson started 0-6, were 1-10 at Christmas and 3-11 after losing to Yale on Jan. 26.

They haven’t lost since, winning 12 consecutive games by an average of 17.1 points a game. Harvard finished 13-1 to win the Ivy League.

“It was definitely rough at the beginning,” senior forward Christiana Lackner said. “We were able to have solid practices even though we weren’t winning games and that’s what helped us stick through it and turn things around.”

Said coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, in her 25th season at Harvard: “We thought we were playing well at the start of the season but we didn’t end up with very many wins. We’re pretty proud at what we consider a historic turnaround for Harvard.”

With three sophomores in the starting lineup and a horrid nonconference record, Delaney-Smith expected to be a No. 16 seed. Nine years ago, the Crimson made history when it became the first — and still the only — 16 seed (men or women) to win an NCAA first round game. Harvard beat Stanford 71-67 after the Cardinal lost top player Kristin Folkl a week earlier.

The Crimson know they’ll need an historic effort to beat the Terps, much less stay with them.

“We’re just thrilled to have this chance,” Delaney-Smith said. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”

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