So close, but Blue Devils let title slip away

BOSTON -- How did it get away?

You know that's the question Gail Goestenkors and the Duke Blue Devils will ask themselves today, tomorrow, the next day, the next

Duke's 78-75 overtime loss to Maryland in the NCAA title game Tuesday might go down as great theater in the annals of women's basketball. For Duke, though, it will be forever unwatchable -- the ultimate prize firmly in the Blue Devils' grasp, only to be yanked away by Maryland's talented underclassmen.

The Terps have two seniors, neither of whom were a factor on the court this season. Angel Ross played in 14 games. Charmaine Carr appeared in 37 but scored in just one game since the beginning of March. Just the sight of her name, though, made me think of "16 Going On 17" Charmian Carr (the actress) played Liesl in "The Sound of Music," which I probably haven't seen more than 28 times.

Come to think of it, most of the Terps' stars are only a little older than 16 going on 17.

Meanwhile, Duke's Monique Currie turned 23 in February. But for a torn ACL that forced her to sit out the 2002-03 season, Currie would already be in the WNBA. Of course, she might have gone last year, too, since she was eligible. But she came back to win a college title.

She was so close.

How did it get away?

"We didn't really get the stops that we needed to get to maintain the lead we had," Currie said. "And they just slowly crept up on us and took the lead."

Later, Currie sat in the Duke locker room, which was as sad a place as you might imagine it would be. Currie didn't cry. She never really looked close to tears. There are some people who don't cry -- at least not in front of everybody -- when they're crushed. She was that, for sure. And stunned, baffled, disappointed. Wednesday, she'll have to put on a smile for the cameras during the WNBA draft. It won't be easy.

Maryland hit so many big shots late in the game, and Currie was asked how difficult it was for Duke to try to stop that. Especially the game-tying 3-pointer that Kristi Toliver made with six seconds left in regulation.

"I think we were switching on everything, and we thought that would force them to put it on the floor," Currie said. "But Toliver has a nice fadeaway 3 that she hits on a consistent basis. She was able to get it off and it went in, luckily for her."

Didn't you wonder where the luck was for Duke? It was the program's fourth trip to the Final Four and its second title game. A lot of people seem to despise the school, and Goestenkors gets grief from some women's hoops fans that I don't understand at all. It's completely unjustified.

I doubt you could find anyone who works in and around women's hoops who doesn't respect Goestenkors. Most like and admire her a great deal. She built the Duke program from the ground up and did it the right way.

Maybe it's wrong to say anyone "deserves" a national championship. But I'll say it anyway: Goestenkors -- like Virginia's Debbie Ryan, Ohio State's Jim Foster and Georgia's Andy Landers -- deserves to win a title.

Will it happen for Goestenkors? She's convinced it will, and she absolutely should think that way. She's only 43, and Duke is not going downhill in talent anytime in the foreseeable future. She ought to have many more chances. But

Wasn't it the Blue Devils' turn Tuesday? Couldn't these Maryland freshmen and sophomores wait?

Nope, sports doesn't work that way. It's never "your turn" unless you make it that way. The Terps didn't much care if they were the younger group. The Blue Devils had their chances -- wow, did they have them. But one little mistake piled on another and another and another.

How did it get away?

Duke should have had a lead bigger than 10 points at halftime. The Blue Devils did have Maryland flustered in the first half, and Duke's defense was superb. Duke got its biggest lead of the game -- 13 points, which would be equaled in the second half -- on Currie's three-point play with 4:21 left.

But for the remainder of the half, the Blue Devils made one basket and two free throws. They missed six shots, four of them essentially in layup range. Duke went to the locker room up by 10, but anyone sniffing for gloom might have picked up the first faint whiff right there. Duke could have been up by 15 or more.

"Well, that certainly would have helped," Goestenkors said. "We were so excited coming out of the gate. We got great looks and didn't make them pay for it."

Duke missed chances at the beginning of the second half, too. And then, when Lindsey Harding was whistled for her third foul, a block on Crystal Langhorne with 14:12 left, the momentum took a definite turn.

It was the only call of the night that Goestenkors vehemently protested. Harding said afterward that when she heard the whistle, she thought official Bob Trammell was calling a charge; Harding thought she was planted far enough away from Langhorne, so she was stunned that she was called for a blocking foul.

Langhorne converted the three-point play, but it wasn't so much that extra point that hurt Duke. It was Harding having three fouls, which meant she had to dial back on the aggressiveness that makes her defense so good.

"Sometimes you get calls, sometimes you don't," Harding said. "You just have to take it and go with it. What was going through my head was, 'You can't think about it, just move on.'

"I knew once I got that third foul, I needed to stay in the game. In the first half, I pressured so much more. Our defense wasn't as aggressive because I was afraid they were going to call fouls."

How did it get away?

Duke saw a few precious points slip by. Currie scored with 2:33 left and the Blue Devils were up 68-64. But on Duke's next two possessions, Abby Waner and Harding both missed jumpers.

After Ashleigh Newman made one of two foul shots for Maryland -- subbing for an injured Shay Doron -- Duke's Mistie Williams missed a layup. She never found her comfort zone all night, in fact, finishing 1 of 8 from the field for three points. It's not a memory you want any senior to have of her last game.

But Waner grabbed the rebound off Williams' miss. Duke was still up by three with 35 seconds left. Waner was fouled. She entered Tuesday's game shooting 69.2 percent from the foul line.

She didn't make the front end. Would two free throws there have sealed the victory?

Probably although against Maryland's magic, who knows for sure? But you could tell that the freshman Waner, sobbing hard in the Blue Devils' locker room afterward, felt she had lost the game all by herself.

She hadn't, of course. Duke still could have won in overtime, although the emotional power was really on the Terps' side by that point. Waner was called for traveling and she missed a shot in the extra period, and all that surely was part of those tears, too. Currie made two baskets, Alison Bales made one of two free throws. It wasn't enough for Duke.

How did it get away?

"Everyone feels there was more they could have done," Bales said. "But it's never one play or one stop or one pass or one turnover. It's always the whole game. Maryland had it. They hit the big shots when they needed them and came up with all the big stops."

That's how it got away.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.