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Terps' Final Four path leads to their ex-coach

March 29, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Nothing about the big numbers Marissa Coleman put up the other day surprised Jeff Walz. After all, he did help recruit her to Maryland.

Now it's his job to stop her.

Standing between the Terrapins and another Final Four trip is second-year Louisville coach Walz, an assistant on the Maryland team that won the 2006 national title behind then-freshmen Coleman and Kristi Toliver.

"Those kids, they're still friends of mine -- they still call and talk," Walz said Sunday. "It's just one of those situations where it's going to be a lot of fun for our kids to play and for me to coach."

In a fourth-round matchup rich with subplots, there certainly won't be any excuses for unfamiliarity when the top-seeded Terrapins (31-4) and No. 3 seed Cardinals (32-4) meet Monday night in the Raleigh regional final.

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"Both coaches are going to be well-prepared," said Maryland's Brenda Frese, playing down the mentor-vs.-protege storyline. "Obviously, when the ball tips, it's Maryland vs. Louisville. It doesn't have anything to do with the two coaches. It's all about two teams."

Still, there's no escaping that Walz spent six years as an assistant to Frese -- one at Minnesota, five at Maryland -- before taking over the Cardinals in 2007. And not to be overlooked, Louisville's best player -- forward Angel McCoughtry -- grew up in Baltimore and was recruited hard by Maryland.

"I told our kids (that) there's not really going to be a surprise of individual skill," Walz said. "I'm familiar with all of their kids, recruited them, coached a few of them. Now it's just going to come down to which team executes the best on the defensive and offensive ends of the floor."

Nobody has executed much better lately than Coleman, whose career-high 42 points helped the Terps rally from 18 down and beat Vanderbilt 78-74 in the regional semifinals for their 15th straight win.

"It wasn't a big shock to me," Walz said. "I've seen her do it in big games."

Maryland has made it this far three times during her four seasons, losing in the round of eight last year to eventual national finalist Stanford. The Terps' only early exit from the tournament during Coleman's career came during her sophomore season in 2007 when they were bounced in the second round by Mississippi.

"On paper, we should have won the past couple of national championships, but 'on paper' doesn't matter," Coleman said. "It's what you do between the lines. There's been a couple of things -- last year, I don't think luck was on our side. The stars were aligned for Stanford, and I don't think too many people would have been able to beat them last year. The year before that, I think it was on us. We didn't prepare as well as we should have, and we didn't play Maryland basketball that year."

Walz seems to have Louisville playing Maryland basketball, too.

This is the farthest the Cardinals has ever advanced in the bracket, surpassing the two tournament wins they had last year before they let an 18-point lead evaporate in a third-round loss to North Carolina.

"This has been a dream since I came to college, to make it to this level and become part of the Final Four," McCoughtry said. "We just want to get there. All these other programs have been there, they have experience, and we're just trying to get the experience that they had."

Of course, their coach had those kinds of experiences three years ago -- and he's trying to pass them along to his players.

It was Walz who was credited for drawing up what became the signature moment of that 2006 championship game against Duke -- the play that freed up Toliver to bury the 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime before the Terps went on to win their first national championship in the extra session.

"I was excited to see both (Coleman and Toliver) play well -- especially excited for Marissa," Walz said. "The way she's been playing for the past month, she has been, without a doubt, the one that's been carrying that team. She's put them all on her back. It's been fun to watch. I'm not sure how much fun it will be to coach against them, but to watch it has been fun."

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