March 27, 2009
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Marissa Coleman stepped onto the court for practice Friday and bumped fists with a Maryland teammate. Then, she grabbed a ball and got right to work.
No time for the top-seeded Terrapins to mark their territory just yet. They took care of that a few weeks ago.
Maryland has made itself right at home on Tobacco Road lately. After winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament earlier this month in Greensboro, the Terps are the league's last team standing. They're back in the heart of ACC country hoping to play their way back into the Final Four, starting Saturday against No. 4 seed Vanderbilt in a Raleigh Regional semifinal.
"We're coming into the tournament, obviously, playing some of our best basketball, and I just love the fact that we're clicking on all cylinders," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said.
After breezing through the NCAA tournament's first weekend, Maryland (30-4) is sure to face a tougher test in the third round. The Commodores (26-8), the last remaining team from the Southeastern Conference, once again stand between the Terps and a spot in the regional finals.
Not that there's much of value that either team can extract from the tape of Maryland's 80-66 win in last year's round of 16. With Coleman and guard Kristi Toliver the unquestioned leaders, these Terps are more perimeter-based than they were when Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper clogged the paint.
Meanwhile, the Commodores have been playing a four-guard lineup lately after sliding SEC defensive player of the year Jennifer Risper - a 5-foot-9 guard - into the low post to make up for an injury to leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Hannah Tuomi. She went down about a month ago with a stress fracture in her left ankle.
"Your biggest post presence leaves, and your main offense is called 'low post,' you need to have players that have already bought in to what you try to do as a staff, and our players have," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We've been extra motivated. It's given us something to rally around, and we haven't had any adversity all year. I told them, when this happened, it was time to see what they were made of, what kind of courage and character they've had. They've really blossomed with that opportunity."
It has been evident during the Commodores' postseason roll. Since losing in the regular-season finale to Tennessee, they've won five straight and claimed their sixth SEC tournament title.
Then again, Maryland has been even hotter. Winners of 14 straight, the Terps haven't lost in nearly two full months, and they took care of the most notable item on their preseason to-do list earlier this month when they won the school's first ACC tournament title in 20 years. Before their title-game victory over Duke across the state in Greensboro, some players memorably converged at midcourt and scuffed the ACC logo - their way of marking their territory.
"Maybe we'll think about it once we step on the floor," Coleman said with a smile.
Both teams find themselves in the strange position of being their proud conference's last hope in the tournament after each league sent four teams to the round of 16 two years ago.
"There was just a lot of turnaround in our conference," Balcomb said. "You had two very, very powerful teams (Tennessee and LSU) that made the Final Four ... consistently, and winning. We were top-heavy. Us and Georgia, we filled out the rest of the consistent top four, but I think there was a lot more balance this year."
The SEC produced two Final Four teams in 2007 and '08. Before that, the national semifinals might as well have been called the ACC invitational. Three ACC teams made it in 2006 - including Maryland, which beat North Carolina in the semis before claiming an overtime thriller over Duke in a title game best known for the clutch 3-pointer hit by Toliver, then an emerging freshman.
Three years later, and the Terps' dynamic duo of Toliver and Coleman are looking to cap their college careers the same way they started them.
"Our chemistry has been there since the beginning, as freshmen, and it's only continued to grow," Toliver said. "It's frightening how well we know one another's game, and where we want the ball, when we want the ball. We can anticipate the next play happening, and I think that's why we're so effective. It's been a process, it's been a growth, but I think it's been there since Day 1."