Maryland made the tournament semifinals in 1982 and 1989; Duke played for the title in 1998 - so someone is going to be very happy Wednesday morning.
But which loser will be more depressed? The answer to that one is easy, and that may be the key to the 2006 NCAA title. Duke and Gail Goestenkors have been labeled as underachievers, if not chokers, for their apparent inability to get their talent to deliver in postseason, even though that talent may have been overrated. If the Blue Devils are lugging around the past Tuesday night, that may slow them down just enough to let younger and so far looser Maryland claim the crown.
The Terrapins also should have some confidence after snapping a 14-game losing streak to Duke in the ACC tournament, the third meeting between the two this season. The pattern of those games also gives hope to Maryland fans: In the first game, the Terps led 11-10 but got smoked before half and lost by 18 at home; in the second, Maryland led by 10 just after halftime, gave up the lead, got it back and faded late; in the third, the Turtles were up 15 early in the second half, fell behind by one and then pulled away to win by 10.
Psychologically, one could say that Maryland learned to win by losing, and now the Terps know that they can make just as many big plays as Duke does.
On the other hand, the Blue Devils have more depth, more experience and more talent up and down the roster, as the following analysis reveals. But will be it enough to shed that 800-pound gorilla on their backs?
Point guard: One of the most interesting matchups of all will pit inconsistent freshman Kristi Toliver (she of the 12 turnovers and inexplicable passes) vs. inconsistent junior Lindsay Harding (forced shots, shooting as much as any other Duke player in the semi). Not surprisingly, though, the junior has been better over the course of the full season, with a better overall shooting percentage, more rebounds, more assists, fewer turnovers and more than three times as many steals. Since there's not much to choose from in the three head-to-head games (especially since Toliver didn't start the first game), or the tournament, the best guess is to go with the body of work - and that would be the more experienced Harding. Advantage Duke.
Laura Harper (Getty)
Shooting guard: I'm going with Abby Waner as Duke's starter, as she has played more minutes in the tournament than Wanisha Smith and has been much more effective. And she did start 15 games during the season, Maryland is similarly unsettled, with Shay Doron and Ashleigh Newman trading off in the pregame announcements, but Doron will get my call here, especially after her late-game heroics Sunday. despite those heroics, Doron has not played well in the tournament, shooting poorly and handling not much better. She's not a great defender, which could be a problem against Waner, who is 11 of her last 20 from the field. But Waner is a freshman and prone to the unforced turnover (four in 22 minutes Sunday), so it's possible nerves will affect her in the title game. Still, Waner will make more plays - advantage: Duke.
Small forward: Once again we match experience (Monique Currie) vs. youth (Marissa Coleman), but Currie wasn't a factor through much of the LSU game, and Coleman played brilliantly against North Carolina. Sure, she scored only 12 points, but she was three of five from the field, a perfect six-of-six from the line, had 14 rebounds and handed out seven assists. Aside from the blip against Utah, Coleman's been a rock in postseason. In the three head-to-head games, though, Currie clearly got the better of her younger rival, including a 31-point outburst in the 90-80 Blue Devil win. This is a key matchup, and Currie seems to be playing tighter than Coleman right now -- but still, the edge has to go to Duke.
Power forward: Laura Harper has been a beast throughout the tournament, with only foul trouble capable of slowing her down. She's hitting her free throws, playing with controlled aggression around the basket and making big plays. Mistie Williams has been less spectacular, but nearly as effective. Harper's a better shotblocker; Williams a better ballhandler. Harper's taller and more athletic; Williams is stronger and more experienced. Basically, this is as even as it gets.
Center: If the Alison Bales of the regular season shows up, Crystal Langhorne has the edge. But Bales has been tremendous in the tournament, and even though she was just three of nine from the field against LSU, she had four assists, no turnovers, two steals and six blocked shots. More important, she only had one foul, and if she can stay on the court against the undersized Langhorne, it's going to be tough for the Maryland sophomore to score. Against the regular-season Bales, though, Langhorne was 15 of 23 from the field - and she's coming off a 10-for-12 night. But Langhorne only had two rebounds, and she didn't rebound well against Duke in the three previous games (getting none in 38 minutes in the last game). Assuming Bales maintains her recent level of play, this is another even category -- though Langhhorne is the more likely choice to take charge.
Bench: Though benches shorten in postseason, Duke's depth still could be a factor. The Terrapins use only Ashleigh Newman and Jade Perry off the bench, and against UNC, those two combined for no shots, no points and three rebounds in 23 minutes. They are capable of more, of course, but Perry hasn't done much since the first-round win over Sacred Heart. Newman has rebounded well, but Maryland may need some points in this one, which Newman did not provide in the three-game series. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, counter with not only Wanisha Smith, but 6-5 Chante Black and sharpshooter Jessica Foley (if you're looking for a complementary player to come up big, bet on Foley). Black had 19 in the last Duke-Maryland game, and Smith is an experienced, capable player who has started every tournament game. If the whistles blow, which may be likely after the Maryland-North Carolina wrestling match, Duke's advantage here gets even bigger.
Mistie Williams & Lindsay Harding
Coaching: Brenda Frese has done a masterful job building this program, and has done an equally superb job coaching it. Despite a torrent of turnovers against North Carolina, she stayed calm and steady, and so did her team. She smiled and applauded, and so did her assistants, so much so that Toliver, in the midst of a 12-turnover struggle, was laughing with a coach during the game. Frese made the right calls and pushed the right buttons to get the most out of her talent. Gail Goestenkors is trying, but she's not nearly as relaxed, and her team didn't play up to its offensive potential against LSU. She's been to the finals before, and knows what she's doing, but right now, Frese has the better feel for her team. Advantage Maryland.
Offense: You can't turn the ball over 26 times and have a smoothly functioning offense, even if you shoot 56% from the field, as Maryland did against North Carolina. But as long as the Terps can get the ball to Langhorne (an incredible 49 of 68 (72 percent) for the tournament), they will be a well-oiled machine. They haven't shot the three that well during the postseason, but you never know with long-range shots -- they could start dropping from the first minute of the title game, and all of a sudden, there's no way to double Langhorne. Duke's offense is more spread out, which can be bad or good, depending on the day. The odds say Langhorne will cool off, which would leave Maryland in a world of hurt, while the Blue Devils will just shuffle the ball to someone else if Currie struggles. They both make free throws and shoot threes, but Duke is much better at avoiding turnovers, and the Blue Devils have more weapons. Advantage Duke.
Defense: A veteran team can do more than a young team, and Duke has more experience. The Blue Devils threw a zone trap at Maryland in the second half of the final game between the two and promptly went on a 16-0 run. Duke also has more steals and forces more turnovers, as well as a small advantage in opponents' shooting percentage. Most important, the Blue Devils have the shot-blocking of Alison Bales, who, if she avoids foul trouble, will take away much of Maryland's inside game. Edge to Duke.
Intangibles: Maryland is young and riding the wave. The Terps turned the ball over 26 times and never blinked or buckled; they withstood a late run by the number one team in the country and found an unlikely way to win (Shay Doron breaking down Ivory Latta?). Brenda Frese is doing a wonderful job, and the Terps are relishing the role as underdog. Duke is not playing as well, and still carries the burden of being the best program never to have won a title. Gail Goestenkors feels that weight, and so do her players, which gives the Terps the best chance to come into the game loose and ready. Advantage Maryland.
Conclusion: The categories break down 6-2-2 in favor of Duke, but that last one, intangibles, may tell the tale. If Duke plays as well as it can, the Blue Devils will win -- but can they overcome their well-chronicled postseason jitters? And can Alison Bales keep it going? Of course, the same question could be asked of Crystal Langhorne, who is not going to shoot 72 percent for the rest of her career. The feather that tips the scale: Duke won two of three this year, and has won 14 of the last 15. Duke gets the title that has evaded the Blue Devils for so long.
Clay Kallam is one of the nation's foremost experts on women's basketball. For more of his pieces, visit Full Court Press