When we think of Tennessee women’s basketball, we immediately think of one name. Pat Summitt is the winningest coach in women’s basketball history. She has guided the Volunteers through the most NCAA tournament appearances (18) and will remain the true matriarch of one of sports’ most enduring legacies.
With that being said, her 2008-2009 team lost its opening game in the NCAA tournament, marking the first time a Summitt-led squad was ousted in the first round. Tennessee (22-11) will be sitting at home for the rest of March Madness.
This stunning turn of events has given hope to the 16 teams that remain in this year’s highly competitive field. My thoughts today, NCAA bracket busters, are to analyze one team's rise from diaper dandies to serious to championship contenders.
I will argue with anyone who can prove to me that the Maryland Lady Terrapins are not the hottest team in college basketball today.
“Are you serious Johnson?”
“The Connecticut Huskies are 33-0 and have beaten opponents by an average of 31 points per game.”
To the non-believers, I say turn on the Terps’ game versus Vanderbilt (26-8) on Saturday.
The Terps’ boast two of the best college players in the nation—seniors Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman. This terrible twosome has punished their opponents with a wide-open offensive attack.
Coleman especially has been a hard player to defend.
In the Terps’ first round game versus Dartmouth, Coleman managed just nine points but lassoed 18 rebounds. There is no quit in her game. If she’s not scoring in double figures, she is hitting the boards.
And with Toliver leading the charge at point guard, this talented forward continues to add to her impressive career totals.
Her basketball resume is rich with accomplishment. In 2006, as a freshman, she was the ACC rookie of the year and made the first team all-ACC tournament team.
The Terrapins shocked the world later that year, defeating the heavily-favored Duke Blue Devils team 78-75 in overtime to seal the Terrapins' first NCAA championship.
In the last minute of overtime, Coleman knocked down two big free throws and grabbed the game’s final rebound. The celebratory cheers from the faithful fans, who believed in them from day one, could be heard cascading down from the rafters at the Pitt in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The 2008-2009 season is shaping up to be a Terps’ supporter’s dream.
Maryland has put together a phenomenal run that began after a February 89-81 loss to then No. 19 Virginia.
Since that surprising defeat, the Terrapins have won 15 straight games, using an opportunistic offensive approach, which gives the team more chances to score off of their opponents’ mistakes.
Coach Brenda Frese leans on Toliver and Coleman to jump start the Maryland offensive game plan but knows she has other weapons in her arsenal for defensive purposes. I have heard ESPN analysts gripe about Maryland’s lack of defensive effort.
They accuse Maryland of being one-dimensional at times, which boggles this amateur reporter’s mind.
Freshman center Lynetta Kizer earned ACC rookie of the year honors, not by her offensive prowess, but by her outstanding defensive presence in the paint. She averaged 11 points and 13 rebounds a game. Maryland has had three players receive this award since 2005.
This is not a team who waits for something good to happen. These women go for it on every play. To watch them blossom under extreme scrutiny from so-called basketball geniuses has been a gift in itself. The Terrapins want to be better than good; they want to be great.
The evidence is in the words of their fearless leaders.
After the Utah game, Coleman was asked this interesting question. “When you signed your letter-of-intent, did you ever imagine you and Kristi would go [65-3] at home and become a part of Maryland’s history like this?"
“To be honest, I think we were overconfident when we came in,” said Coleman. “Kristi and just thought we could win all of our games. And then we won a national title our first year, it almost gave us a false sense of how easy it is. We really had to work to get back to where we are. Right now we feel like we are on a mission.”
Toliver spoke of her ignorance after tasting early success. “When I signed to play at Maryland, I believed we could win four championships,” said Toliver. “Both Marissa and I expected that.
"We didn’t have a clue as to how unrealistic that idea was. But Risa and I know we haven’t done anything yet. We want a second NCAA title. Not for us but for the fans.”
Connecticut and Maryland have to make it to the championship game to determine which team reigns supreme. Good luck to both teams, as the NCAA tournament battles wage on.