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As their players have done all season, the University of Maryland Terrapins played their best when their backs were pushed to the wall.
The Terps women's basketball team came from behind in exciting fashion last night to win the NCAA championship, defeating the Duke Blue Devils, 78-75, in overtime.
A team that battled illness, inexperience and doubters overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half. Freshman Kristi Toliver hit a three-point basket with 6.1 seconds left in regulation to force the extra period.
That's when Maryland could start to breathe a bit easier - the Terps were 5-0 in overtime this season. They outscored Duke 8-5 in the extra period, capped by a pair of Toliver free throws with 34 seconds left that gave the Terps a lead they wouldn't lose.
"When you've got kids who believe in each other and have that confidence, you can accomplish anything," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese.
As the final buzzer sounded, the team converged on center court, hugging, jumping and crying as confetti rained down on them from the rafters.
The emotion traveled quickly from the court of TD Banknorth Garden to several hundred Terps fans in the stands who had made the trip from Maryland, then back to College Park, where friends, family members and fans watched on television. From barstools and the Internet message boards, the celebration started immediately.
A sellout Boston crowd and a national television audience were treated to an exciting second half. The Terps, who trailed by as much as 13 at one point, played the overtime period with enthusiasm.
Toliver, who had 12 turnovers two nights earlier against North Carolina, came up big in the final minutes of the game. She shot 1-of-9 from the field in the first half but finished the game with 16 points, the three that mattered most forcing the extra period.
"As soon as it left my hands, I knew it was going in," Toliver said of the game-tying basket.
The win marks the school's first women's basketball championship. The men won the title in 2002.
The women's team played in a national championship game once before, losing to UCLA in 1978. The tournament then included 32 teams, and it wasn't run by the NCAA until the 1981-1982 season.
The championship also marks a high point for a program that was losing more games than it was winning four years ago. School administrators knew when they lured Frese to College Park from the University of Minnesota in 2002 that her tireless recruiting could return the Terps to their place on the national stage.
"Nobody in the country can say they've gone from 10-18 to three years later playing in the Final Four," said junior Shay Doron, Frese's first recruit and a cornerstone on which the program was built. "I love bursting people's expectations and proving them wrong. This team does it day in and day out, every single year I've been here."
Sophomore Laura Harper, who missed most of last season because of an injury, was named the tournament's outstanding player. She and Toliver were named to the all-tournament team.
The NCAA tournament is as much a marathon as it is an obstacle course. Sixty-four teams began their run more than two weeks ago. One by one, they fell to the side. As each shot fell and each buzzer sounded, Maryland's players kept finishing on top.
Their course was full of impediments. After scorching Sacred Heart in the opening-round game and St. John's in the second round, the Terps went to Albuquerque, N.M., as one of 16 teams remaining in the field. They topped Baylor, the defending champs, and before they could play the regional final against the Utah Utes, players battled a stomach virus.
Seven of the 10 players and two coaches became violently ill. The bug also hit cheerleaders, band members, boosters and administrators. Practice was canceled, and though many players had struggled to stand upright earlier in the day, the Terps fought through the illness, disposing of Utah and advancing to Boston.
This week, Maryland squared off against Atlantic Coast Conference rival North Carolina, a No. 1 seed and one of the favorites heading into the tournament. The Tar Heels had lost once in the regular season - to Maryland four weeks earlier. The Terps played a well-executed game, led by the inside play of Crystal Langhorne and Harper, to top the Tar Heels, 81-70.
The stage was set, and the Terps were again the underdogs, a position they had come to prefer heading into the championship game.
Adding to the drama, the finale pitted the Terps against a talented and experienced Blue Devils team, a conference rival that has dominated the Terps over the past several years.
Entering this season, Duke had defeated Maryland 12 straight times. The Blue Devils beat the Terps easily, 86-68, in College Park on Jan. 8. Four weeks later, Duke again pounded Maryland, 90-80, in Durham, N.C.
The Terps said they got the monkey off their backs in the ACC tournament, when they beat Duke in the semifinal round, 78-70.
Heading into last night's game, Duke, which had made the Final Four three times but had not won a title, was favored. On ESPN.com, all five expert analysts predicted that the Blue Devils would win.
Frese had counted on such slights and snubs to motivate her young team this postseason.
Despite Duke's early lead, Maryland's big players kept making big plays, tiny flashes of brilliance midway through the second half that gave SportsCenter producers plenty of highlights to choose from last night.
There was Langhorne's steal and quick layup, Toliver's momentum-changing three-pointer, then a pair of fadeaway jumpers by Marissa Coleman, all leading up to Toliver's big shot at the end of regulation.
Entering the game, critics continued to note the team's youth - the starting five consisted of two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
The young team, noted for potential and promise, has fulfilled its championship dreams ahead of schedule. From the arena to their hotel and back to College Park, the party was only beginning last night.