Young but Brilliant
Crystal Langhorne (AP photo)
Crystal Langhorne (AP photo)
Full Court Press
Posted Apr 5, 2006

Young but brilliant coach Brenda Friese carried her young but brilliant team through the rough spots and young but brilliant point guard Kristi Toliver hit the big shot as Maryland topped Duke in overtime of the NCAA women's basketball championship game.

Maryland coach Brenda Friese and freshman point guard Kristi
Toliver(Getty Images)

No overtime game can be boiled down to one shot, or one player, or one narrative. If this hadn't happened in regulation, or that hadn't happened in overtime, the outcome would have, could have, should have, been different.

But trying to make sense of Maryland's 78-75 win in the national championship demands some structure, some storyline. We want to, need to, make sense of Duke's bitter second-half collapse, of Maryland's youthful resurgence, of all that happened in a marvelous 25 finishing minutes of basketball. Here's one way: freshman Kristi Toliver made her shot; senior Jessica Foley didn't.

That's cruel, perhaps, but undeniable. Toliver, who missed 13 of her 19 shots Tuesday, stepped back and buried a three-pointer with 3.8 seconds left in regulation to tie a game Duke had led by four with 58 seconds to go. Foley, who had made two of her four threes, came up short on the Blue Devils' desperation shot to tie the game at the end of overtime. Simple enough: Toliver misses, Duke wins; Foley makes, they might still be playing.

Kristi Toliver celebrates her game-
tying three in front of the Maryland
bench (Getty Images)
Here's another: Maryland, led by brilliant coach Brenda Frese, overcame a dismal first half, and erased a 45-32 margin in 14:35 of loose, frenetic, physical basketball. Frese, who got in the face of freshman Marissa Coleman in the first half, watched Coleman hit two big shots during the second-half comeback, and then laughed with her before she buried the two free throws with 13.4 left that forced Duke to have to try for a three at the buzzer.

Frese guided her young team - two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior - with a steady hand, and her confidence and swagger carried them through the rough spots. So what if Toliver missed a bunch of shots? The freshman knew Frese had her back, and she buried two very tough shots in the last 25 seconds of regulation. So what if Coleman was invisible in the first half, and the recipient of some high-volume advice (delivered at close range) from Frese? She had the confidence to make the shots the Terrapins needed.

And then there's Shay Doron, who struggled in the last four games, but played 40 gritty minutes of tremendous basketball, including a huge interior basket to tie the game in overtime.

Which leads us to yet another thread in the fabric: Doron outsmarted Monique Currie, Duke's star, all night long. She drew a charge; she drew a foul; she drew another foul. Of course, she made the free throws (six of six from the line), and Currie's sizable advantage in size, strength, athleticism and raw talent was blunted. Currie finished with 20 points, yes, but she had to sit for 10 minutes, primarily because Doron kept baiting her into fouls.

And Currie's game was black and white. She made some huge plays at the end of regulation and the start of overtime, and without her, Duke loses much earlier. But she also missed layups, turned the ball over and didn't hustle down court when she thought she was fouled. And her body language throughout the game did not announce, "We're going to win," and was even worse in the final 13.4 seconds.

Duke's Lindsay Harding and Abby
Waner celebrate a play (Getty)
Mistie Williams, who exhorted her teammates in the huddle, had a brief burst late in the game, but was one of nine from the field, managed only three rebounds in 34 minutes and committed a blatant offensive foul early in overtime.

Foley can't really be blamed for missing the last, long three, but Toliver did make hers - and that's how national championships are won.

The first half did not, however, look like any of this Duke negativity would reach the written word. The Blue Devils trailed 2-1, but after that, they were in complete command. They had eight steals in the first half, forced 11 turnovers, outrebounded Maryland and got to the line seven more times. They led by 13 on two occasions, but a portent of things to come marred the final seconds. Currie got a steal and headed down the left side of the court in a two-on-one situation. First, she didn't give the ball up, taking a contested shot herself rather than feeding her open teammates; second, she took the shot with her right hand, the one easier to defend, and missed; and third, when no foul was called, she didn't run back down court to play defense -- and Ashleigh Newman hit an uncontested three in a five-on-four Maryland advantage to make it a ten-point game at half.

But still, it seemed this was Duke's night. It seemed that the years of frustration that Gail Goestenkors had endured were about to end. But even the Blue Devils' confidence hurt them. "You should have heard them yelling in the locker room," Doron said afterward. "We thought, 'What? Is this game over?' "'

No, it wasn't. though when Foley buried a three after a feed from Williams, that 45-32 margin looked pretty comfortable. But Doron drew a foul from Waner and made two free throws. And Waner made a bad pass that Crystal Langhorne turned into a three-point play when Lindsay Harding foolishly tried to take a charge standing under the basket. With the score 47-37, Currie returned to the game, despite her three fouls, and promptly missed two shots and turned the ball over in three of the next four Duke possessions. Only an Alison Bales 12-footer briefly interrupted a 9-2 Maryland run that quickly put the game back in spin.

Duke's Alison Bales (AP)
Here, perhaps, is the best place to spend a little time talking about the marvelous game that Bales had. She was seven of 11 from the field with 12 rebounds and four blocks. She overcame a twisted ankle in the first half, and stayed steady throughout. When Duke got her the ball, good things happened; when the Blue Devils didn't go through her, they struggled to score.

Maryland, however, had found its offensive rhythm. Down 51-43 with 10:57 left, the Terrapins began the run that would propel them to the national title -- and it began with a long Toliver three off the dribble at the top of the key. Duke then committed an ugly turnover on an inbounds play (after the media timeout, no less), and Coleman hit a tough 12-foot stepback over Bales to make it a three-point game.

Currie took advantage of Coleman on the next trip, taking a nice feed from Bales after a backdoor cut to extend it to five again. Coleman answered with a 15-footer, and Bales (there's that name again) hit two free throws. 55-50, 8:35 to go.

After a Jade Perry hoop (a big shot), Bales again made it a five-point game, but that was the high point for Duke. Toliver hit a tough fallaway 12-footer that would have been called a horrible shot if it hadn't gone in, and after Bales finally missed, Maryland had a four-on-one fastbreak after a missed shot. Where were the Blue Devils? Had they forgotten to run? Coleman took advantage, hitting a free-throw line jumper. and it was 57-56.

Harding, a 78-percent free-throw shooter, then made one of two with 6:30 left, and Duke still led, but given the opportunity, Maryland took full advantage. Doron once again outsmarted Currie, drew her fourth foul, and made both free throws to tie the game at 58.

Maryland's Marissa Coleman beats
Duke's Monique Curry to the ball
(Getty Images)
And the Blue Devils showed the first real sign of nerves, failing to get a decent shot in the halfcourt set. Harding was forced to throw up a prayer, which was not answered, and poor rotation by Chante Black put Langhorne on the line with 5:22 remaining. She made one of two and the Terrapins had the lead for the first time since the first three minutes of the game.

Bales, once more, with two free throws. Duke back ahead. Harper missed one of two at the other end. Tied at 60. 4:39.

Now, Currie showed some steel. For all her difficulties earlier, she answered the bell over the next two minutes, getting a shooter's roll on two jumpers and nailing two free throws. The last basket came after a good pass from Williams, who also had some brief moments of glory late, as on the next possession she denied Langhorne a good shot -- and Duke had the ball, a four-point lead and the clock showed less than two minutes.

But Waner, the freshman, was the one who wound up with the ball in her hands at the most crucial moments the rest of the way, and she wasn't quite ready for the crucible of the national championship. She missed a wide-open 15-footer, though she followed that up with a key rebound at the other end. Harding missed for Duke, though, and then the Blue Devils were damaged by a bad call on Williams. Doron had hooked Williams' arm early in the rebounding sequence, and had spun the bigger Williams around. But the official didn't focus on the pair until after Doron had finished pulling on Williams' arm, and only saw Williams' retaliatory pull on Doron, which slammed the annoying Terp to the ground.

Doron, an 82-percent free-throw shooter, couldn't stay on the court because of the pain, and Newman had to shoot her free throws. She made only one, and Duke was still up three with 57.9 seconds left, and had the ball. But Williams missed again - though Waner snared the offensive rebound that appeared to have won the game. She was fouled with 35 seconds remaining, and went to the line for the one-and-one that could have pretty much put the game away. She missed, hitting the back rim, and Toliver made another shot no coach could love unless it went in to make it a one-point game with 25.1 left.

Duke executed perfectly on the inbounds, ran seven seconds off the clock, and put Foley on the line, where she made two free throws. The Blue Devils now lead by three with 18.8 left. Only a three can tie the score.

Duke's Monique Curry (Getty)
But Bales, who had played so brilliantly for so long, wound up switched out on Toliver. Toliver took one hard dribble toward the basket, and Bales fell back a fatal step to prevent the drive that didn't matter - and Toliver stepped back herself. Bales got out quickly and her hand brushed Toliver's hand on the followthrough, but that was too late.

The Maryland freshman made the play when so many around her hadn't. Overtime.

Currie again stepped up, putting Duke ahead twice, and Bales gave the Blue Devils a one-point lead, 75-74, when she made the first of two free throws with 47 seconds left. But after Harding misjudged her chances of getting through a Laura Harper screen, she lost her balance and fell into Toliver, not only putting Toliver on the line, but fouling out of the game.

Is there any surprise that Toliver made both free throws? Maryland leads, 76-75, 34.2 seconds left.

With no Toliver, Waner must bring the ball up for Duke. The ball never gets to Currie, but Waner finds an open shot at the elbow -- and misses with 14 seconds left. Duke must foul, and Coleman, an 83-percent free-throw shooter, smiles with Frese and makes both.

Waner again must bring the ball up, and she does so a little too slowly. Nothing really develops for Duke, and though Foley has a clear look, it's rushed -- her shot is short, and as the ball bounces, the horn sounds.

There, with all the loose ends tied up, the narrative concludes. 78-75. Confetti, Cheers. Tears.

There are stories not told in this version (Coleman's 14 rebounds, the 13-point comeback's place in history, Harper's 16 points), as the texture of this tapestry is thick and tangled. Still, one of the pleasures of sport is its lack of ambiguity, and there's a conclusion that's inescapable. Maryland is the national champion.

It's as simple, as joyous, as heartbreaking, as that. In a game

Clay Kallam is one of the nation's foremost experts on women's basketball. For more of his pieces, visit Full Court Press

Maryland's Jade Perry (55), Duke's Alison Bales (43), Maryland's
Laura Harper (15) battle for the ball (Stephan Savoia / AP)

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