Brenda Frese said she gets a smile on her face just at the thought of the Maryland Terrapins’ 2006 NCAA women’s basketball championship, which was 15 years ago this season.
Laura Harper, Most Outstanding Player of that Final Four and now the first-year head coach at Coppin State, said she just recalls the utter joy at the final buzzer of the pulse-pounding 78-75 overtime win against Duke to bring home the big, crystal trophy now on display in Xfinity Center.
Kristi Toliver, now with the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, says the recollection triggers a flood of emotions for her. Hitting “The Shot” that sent the game into overtime was a launching pad for her to start stacking up WNBA awards and two championships, the last with the Washington Mystics in 2019.
“The celebration with my teammates and our fans, everybody that went up to Boston, [the site of the 2006 Final Four],” Toliver said recently. “It was a big deal. I had just made the biggest shot of my life on that stage and it was just a rush of emotion at the end.”
Toliver was one of two freshmen in Maryland’s starting lineup along with ACC Freshman of the Year Marissa Coleman, and both came up big in the NCAA Tournament along with sophomores Harper, Crystal Langhorne and junior Shay Doron, the first big signee of the then-burgeoning Frese era. By the end of what was a 34-4 season, the Terrapins were mature beyond their years and the program announced itself with authority in Frese’s fourth year at the helm.
“The narrative was never written about winning a championship that year, we were so young,” Harper said. “We were so naïve, so dumb. We laugh about it because we didn’t know any better. I think it dawned on us that year at the ACC tournament that [we could win a championship]. I’ll never forget Kristi telling me after we lost to [No. 1 North Carolina in the ACC tournament] that, ‘We can’t get them all, but we’ll get the one that counts.’ I was so disappointed because I have tunnel vision after I lose.”
Toliver was right. Maryland pounded Sacred Heart in the NCAA first round, squeezed by St. John’s, 81-74, and then knocked off 10th-ranked Baylor, 82-63, in the Sweet 16. It took overtime to upend Utah, 75-65, in the Elite Eight, the fifth of six overtime victories on the season for the young team. And then came the rematch with the Tar Heels in the Final Four.
Harper had 24 points and nine rebounds, and Langhorne chipped in 23 points in an 81-70 win against North Carolina. The Terrapins had been the only team to beat UNC during the regular season, in what else — overtime.
Only Duke, which had taken two of three games against Maryland, remained between the Terps and immortality. Of course, Duke had beaten Maryland 14 straight times prior to Maryland’s ACC tournament victory a few weeks earlier. Again, the Terrapins were so young, they never thought of the task ahead as daunting.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” laughed Harper, who had returned from an Achilles injury suffered the previous season. “I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I was just happy to be playing. The game I love had been taken away from me the year prior. My job was just to run and rebound and I tried to do that.”
Harper said assistant coach Jeff Walz had told her she was the fifth option in a high-powered offense that featured all five starters averaging at least 11.5 points per game.
“I was only allowed to score if the first four options weren’t there,” Harper said. “If I got an offensive rebound, I was supposed to kick it back out. If I couldn’t get it back to Kristi, Marissa, Shay or [key reserve Ashleigh Newman], then I could shoot.”
After the Terrapins came from 13 points down in the title game and trailed just 70-67 coming out of a timeout with 15 seconds left, suffice it to say that final play wasn’t drawn up for Harper, who would actually lead the team, along with Doron and Toliver, with 16 points that night. The play was designed for Toliver, who shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range that season and was already developing a reputation for calm, clutch play when the stakes were highest.
She hit just one of nine shots in the first half but had 10 of Maryland’s final 24 points during the final 10 minutes, including the last five in regulation.
“I was going to shoot it one way or another,” Toliver recalled. “The play was designed for me to come off those double high screens, pass it to [Coleman] and get it back. There was a play at Thanksgiving [in a loss to] Tennessee for me to take a shot and I didn’t and that was a lesson learned.”
Instead, Toliver took the inbounds pass, read the Duke switch coming as she rounded Coleman’s screen and into Langhorne’s and kept the ball.
“I felt good about it because Duke had been switching a lot,” Toliver said. “I had a little extra space because [Duke’s Alison] Bales was back so that created a little more room.”
Bales was 6-foot-7, a good athlete and closed quickly as the 5-foot-7 Toliver stepped back and went into her motion.
“It was close,” smiled Toliver.
“Our hands hit one another, our fingertips brushed,” she added.
The shot went in and tied the score, and the Terrapins got back on defense as Duke missed at the buzzer. Doron scored half of Maryland’s eight points in the overtime session, including tying the game twice. Toliver’s two free throws with 34 seconds left put Maryland ahead for good, and Coleman shut the door with two more at 13 seconds. Coleman had 10 points, eight in the second half, and a then-career high 14 rebounds.
No one in the Maryland black jerseys that night thought the team would lose once the game got to overtime.
Frese had preached all season that “overtime is our time,” and her team believed.
“This was our sixth overtime and we really felt like it was our time,” Harper said. “Coach B instilled that in us and she always had us mentally prepared.”
Harper joked that the younger players on her first Coppin State team don’t even remember her playing on a national title team. She uses lessons she learned that season every day, though.
“I want to instill confidence in my team, want them to play with composure,” she said. “That comes from the past success I had playing at such a high level, including USA Basketball and the WNBA and overseas.”
Harper stays in touch with her former Terrapin teammates despite a busy schedule at Coppin State. Toliver is also in touch with old teammates and watches the current Terrapin team when she can. She thinks highly of the current point guard, Ashley Owusu. They’re different players but very similar in results and wins.
Frese said that first championship team set the course for her program, which has since added two more Final Four appearances, 16 straight 20-win seasons, 12 conference titles, seven 30-victory campaigns, eight Sweet 16s and six Elite Eights. She has sent numerous players to the professional ranks and is regarded as one of the game’s top coaches and recruiters.
“It put us back on the national stage when I came here and in four short years we were able to win the national championship,” Frese said. “We were able to validate that with our recruiting and you can see the consistency, a top-10 program over the years. You see it with what we’re doing this year after some people wrote us off early.”
The Terrapins are headed toward 20 wins or close with a truncated schedule and are in the hunt for a Big Ten championship despite a foot injury to freshman Angel Reese of Baltimore.
“Most of these kids we’re recruiting now, I’m not sure how old they were back then — they were children — so it’s more the history and tradition,” Frese said of that 2006 title. “But the path has been paved before and it helped us get this to a national level, which is where Maryland should be.”
And that’s why all the Terps smile or laugh when you mention 2006.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics