COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- As confetti fell and cheers swelled around the Maryland women's basketball team in the moments after it completed an epic comeback against Duke in the championship game of the 2006 NCAA Tournament and claimed the first title in program history, the Terrapins looked like heroes ready to ride off into the sunset.
The only problem with the perfect cinematic ending was the narrative had only just begun. Timing is everything, and for much of last season, the defending champions looked like nothing so much as confused protagonists, quest completed but left to shuffle their feet under the midday sun and wonder why the cameras were still rolling.
Maryland didn't just return the core of that championship team; it returned essentially the entire squad. All but three of the 225 minutes logged by Maryland players in the title game were accounted for when the team reconvened last season, complemented by the imminent eligibility of Tennessee transfer Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and the expectations of the preseason No. 1 ranking.
"We knew that we had everybody -- 90-whatever percent of our offense coming back," junior Marissa Coleman said. "We knew that. So I think there were times we took days off, we didn't work as hard as we should have at certain points of the season."
The result, despite 28 wins, was impossible to describe as anything other than a disappointment. Maryland went 0-3 against fellow ACC powers Duke and North Carolina in the regular season, lost to North Carolina again in the ACC tournament and crashed out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round with a nightmarish 29-turnover performance against Mississippi's pressure defense.
So as the clock ticked down recently toward the team's first official scrimmage in front of a capacity crowd on hand for "Maryland Madness" at the Comcast Center, the Terrapins might have been more eager to bury last season than they had been to raise a championship banner the previous fall.
"Last year was a learning experience for all of us," Coleman said. "It's not something that we ever want to experience again. But at the same time, you've got to find the positive in every negative. And we have an advantage that a lot of other teams don't have. We won it, and we lost it. We had that extreme high and that extreme low. So we know what we need to do to win a national championship and we know all the things not to do to get knocked out in the second round."
Last spring's early exit even came accompanied with a soap-opera flourish after coach Brenda Frese elected to bring point guard Kristi Toliver off the bench for both NCAA Tournament games despite having started her in each of the 32 preceding games. Toliver, who a year earlier earned a permanent place in school lore with her 3-pointer to send the 2006 title game to overtime, said all the right things about doing her part rather than ignite the kind of full-fledged controversy Hope Solo lit at the Women's World Cup. But the confusion and questions coming out of the move seemed a fitting final contrast to the positive vibes of the previous season.
Seven months removed from the drama, Frese stands by her decision to bring Toliver off the bench, saying it was the right decision given the pulse of the team at the time. For her part, Toliver still talks of being caught off guard by the move, but the story coming out of the summer was less about how coach and player reconciled the past than how they went about moving forward with Toliver at the helm of Frese's offense.
Toliver, who arrived at Maryland as more of a scoring guard than pure point guard, spent part of the summer at a camp for point guards, working on the mechanics of playing the position and the mind-set required to excel at it. Not sure what to expect when she arrived, she came away with a new understanding of her role as facilitator.
"There are a ton of things that I can look back on and say from what I learned this summer, if I would have known that then, I would have done it completely different," Toliver explained.
Toliver is already one of the best outside shooters in the country; she hit 44.7 percent of the nearly five 3-point attempts per game she averaged last season. As she said she was reminded during her summer instruction, the best point guards are the ones who can both score and distribute. And like Duke's Lindsey Harding and North Carolina's Ivory Latta, the two guards who dominated the ACC last year before moving on to WNBA success, Toliver's ability to continue growing into both roles with be crucial in determining how this season unfolds.
"Kristi is a tremendous pure shooter and that knack for the game is never going to go away," Frese said. "But in terms of from a natural-born leadership position, that's where she has grown the most and taken the biggest steps."
By nature of its frenetic offensive philosophy, Maryland is never going to rank among the nation's leaders in taking care of the basketball. Frese has said repeatedly that she can live with some turnovers as the tradeoff for pushing tempo and playing a style that her players enjoy and her opponents struggle to keep up with. Even in the Final Four two seasons ago, the Terrapins committed 26 turnovers in a semifinal win against North Carolina. But at times last season, especially in the second-round game against Mississippi, the Terrapins looked less like a high-performance sports car than a runaway semi barreling down a mountain road, hoping there weren't any curves ahead.
Toliver long ago proved she could shoot her team out of trouble, but as much as coming through in the clutch, the challenge this year will be for her to act as the team's clutch both when it shifts into high gear and when it needs to ease off the throttle.
"We were so young, and we played such a fast-paced game, that at times, we were going so fast and that was how we had all those turnovers," Coleman said of the past two seasons. "Especially the Ole Miss game, we were so helter-skelter that we didn't have anyone to just grab the ball and say, 'Calm down, we're fine.' I think if you would have took the Kristi that we have right now and put her into last year, I think we would have had a different outcome in that game."
While Toliver was off honing her skills as a point guard, the three other returning starters from both the championship squad and last season's calamitous team got a refresher course in what it felt like to win their final game. Coleman, Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper all won gold medals with various USA Basketball youth national teams -- Coleman at the Pan-Am Games in Brazil and Langhorne and Harper at the Under-21 World Championship in Russia.
In addition to the medal hardware, the international competitions gave all three players the opportunity to work on individual shortcomings -- Coleman rediscovered the outside shooting touch that wavered late last season, and although Langhorne said she hasn't quite mastered the midrange jumper she worked on over the summer, the idea that it's even a possibility for one of the nation's best low-post players ought to keep opposing coaches sleepless.
The overseas trips also gave the three a chance to have fun on the court again, an element the team recognized was missing even as last season unfolded and something they intend to better manage this season.
"The year before we were such a carefree team, we were out there just having fun and stuff like that," Coleman said. "Last year, I think we were trying so hard not to make any mistakes because we knew that we were the defending national champions and everyone was coming after us. I think that was one of our big things last year, was we weren't having fun anymore."
The pressure that never seemed to faze a group of mostly freshmen and sophomores while marching toward a championship that few outside the program expected finally caught up to them in playing an entire season with a target on their backs visible across the country.
"I think we expected to get that, but I don't think we knew what that felt like," Toliver admitted.
A recruiting class ranked by some as the best in the country -- which includes McDonald's All-American Marah Strickland, the heir apparent to departed senior Shay Doron -- has added an extra dose of energy to the proceedings in College Park this fall. And as the veterans and newcomers took the court together at Midnight Madness dressed in black cocktail dresses and accompanied by the sounds of Soulja Boy Tell 'Em's "Crank That" for their half of choreographed dance routines that are a lighthearted tradition for both the men's and women's teams, the strain of a season gone awry seemed like a distant memory.
The Terrapins might not have a title to defend this season, but they have something to prove. And for this team, that's a comfortably familiar feeling.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.