What Happened to Maryland?

Once championship lightning, the Terps can't strike twice

March 20, 2007

By Jessica Garrison




Jessica is a women's basketball editor for CSTV.com and contributes regularly. E-mail here!

HARTFORD, Conn. - It's a brutal fact that a team's greatest strength, at times can become its greatest weaknesses. As Brenda Frese watched her Maryland team collapse in upon itself in the face of a vicious, voracious Ole Miss team, she saw the Terps' Achilles' heel laid bare.


"A season ago when we really loved the fact that we had youth," Frese said quietly after her team's second-round NCAA exit. "I think it really hurt us tonight. It really spiraled into frustration."


Maryland's emotional stamina was already a topic of discussion, even if the Terps had been playing inspired, confident basketball towards the end of their season. It was Frese, in fact, that planted the seed, benching starting guard Kristi Toliver early to give her some emotional balance.


Toliver, even in her surreal clutch freshman performances, had and has a tendency to lock up when her shots aren't following, and Frese said that having her watch the beginning of the game and observing the flow would alleviate some of the point-guard-sharpshooter pressure. Toliver still put in a team-high 24 points in her 35 minutes of play, but neither she nor her teammates looked like the loose, fun-loving, upset-hungry kids they were this time last year.


When the No. 7 seed, a team you dropped a hundred points on earlier this season, cruises out to an early 17-point lead, it can rattle the best of teams. But when your only steady-handed senior is benched with two quick fouls as Shay Doron was, the hole gets much harder to dig out of.


Maryland's lack of a powerful mature, settling influence was only made more plain by the super trio of seniors lighting things up for Ole Miss coach Carol Ross.


"This is a team win definitely, but any credit should be directed where it deserves to go and that's to the three seniors, (Ashley) Awkward, (Armentie) Price, and (Jada) Mincy," Ross said. The seniors "put this team on their back since last spring and just rode them and encouraged them and pressured them, mostly through example."


The Rebels certainly rode Awkward's 22 points and Price's 28 points to the lead, but it was the hustle, the 42 points off 29 Maryland turnovers that Frese kept coming back to when she praised Ole Miss with a tinge of coach's envy.


"Their defense was phenomenal tonight," Frese said. "As they caused more turnovers in that run we became really tentative which is uncharacteristic of our team."


Uncharacteristic for last season's Terps, maybe, but not at all unexpected from your average team led by juniors and sophomores. Maryland's M.O. all season has been their ability to outscore and outrun opponents, but in the face of a faster, feistier team their defense was at loose ends. Price and Awkward sliced through the Maryland press like butter, and slathered on the shots from every angle.


It was the mirror image of Maryland's 110-79 win over the Rebels in the Bahamas in November, where the Terps' confidence and offense overwhelmed Ole Miss. But did Maryland regress or did Ole Miss just make that much progress?


"We really don't remember that game, we just know that they hit 100 on us," Price said. "This time we were trying to win a championship, we were playing for bigger and better things so we were more focused."


Doron herself was harshly critical of Maryland's relative focus.


"I think the difference was with our team, honestly," the senior guard said, fighting back tears. "It was complete disregard for keeping the ball in our hands and getting shots."


Was last year's national championship almost too much, too soon? Did it rob the young Terrapins of the chance to truly hunger for a title and learn to recover from a few hits on the chin along the way? Either way, as Frese sees it, this early exit gives her team that experience, backward as it may seem.


"We all can get better and I think it's a great lesson to learn after winning a championship, you can't get satisfied as young people, there is so much more out there to improve and get better on," Frese said.


Right now, that lesson is bitter pill for the Terrapins to swallow. Take heart, ladies. You'll grow into it.