- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Leave it to a player whose journey to center stage at the Comcast Center on Sunday afternoon began years ago in a Swedish town to help Miami prove it can win away from home.
And with Stefanie Yderstrom playing the part of Chris Bosh, leave it to a team from South Beach, or at least nearby Coral Gables, Fla., to make a statement of postseason intent on the strength of three star players.
Trailing most of the game on the road against No. 8 Maryland, and with All-Americans Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams suffering through long shooting days against a tough defense, No. 6 Miami still came away with a 76-74 victory. The result allowed the Hurricanes to stay within a game of first-place Duke in the ACC title race and makes that sprint to the finish strictly a two-team affair.
The Hurricanes got what proved to be the winning point on a Shenise Johnson free throw with 23 seconds remaining, the last of three lead changes in the final 129 seconds, but it was Yderstrom's 26 points up to that point that gave them a chance to make the final minutes relevant in the first place. While Johnson and Williams needed 38 shots to score a combined 35 points, Yderstrom hit eight of 15 shots from the floor and all eight of her free throws to set a new career high, topping the 22 points she scored just three weeks ago against Virginia Tech.
Yderstrom's offensive surge -- she's averaging 11.8 points over the past 10 games and 15.3 points over the past six games -- came at an opportune time for a team that lost Morgan Stroman, its third-leading scorer, to a season-ending injury just six games into ACC play. Yderstrom, a Swedish guard from a town called Ostertalke, started 17 games as a freshman and all 33 games as a sophomore, but she's a specialist no more.
"Early in her career, she was a fill-in 3-point shooter," Miami coach Katie Meier said. "She has a great head for the game. Her handle has gotten lower, it was kind of high so she's really worked on her game. But she's been blessed playing with these backcourt mates that can set her up. She had time to keep her confidence up, impact the team and be very successful, and then grow into other aspects of her ball game."
Junior guard Stefanie Yderstrom discusses Miami's win at Maryland.
Another "Big Three"
Maryland coach Brenda Frese noted that her team entered the game intent on stopping the "big three," emphasizing the nickname that most outside the ACC wouldn't apply to Johnson, Williams and Yderstrom.
"She's just having a sensational junior campaign, and she's really good," Frese said. "She's an energy player for them and I thought played a pretty flawless game."
For much of the game, Johnson and Williams and Maryland's Alyssa Thomas and Lauren Mincy, the top four scorers on the court, went about negating each other. The duel between Thomas and Johnson was particularly intense, the latter effectively shutting down Thomas after Maryland's star scored nine first-half points, most in the opening 10 minutes. Part of what makes Thomas special is the attacking mindset she applies while valuing the ball. In 22 games against teams other than Miami this season, she committed just 38 turnovers. But in two games against the Terrapins, often with Johnson draped all over her or lurking nearby, Thomas has 14 turnovers.
Johnson played like an All-American on the defensive end, finishing with seven steals, and eventually found her way to 20 points. But from the opening minute, when Yderstrom recorded the first of four assists and scored seven of her team's first 13 points, to the end, when she drew a key charge and pulled her team to within a point at 68-67, the "other" guard was the best offensive player on the floor.
"I feel like my teammates are -- they trust me more when I'm on the court, when I'm handling the ball," Yderstrom said. "They rely on me to hit big shots, and I like it; I enjoy every single minute of it. The people around me in my team, my teammates, are making it easy for me because definitely [Williams and Johnson], they pay a lot of attention to them, so it makes it easier for me."
Only the coach seemed eager to downplay the significance of the location of the resulting win for the Hurricanes, who entered the game 14-0 at home but a more modest 5-3 on the road against Division I teams.
"It's funny, people try to find out what's wrong with our team, but we've got a ton of big road wins," Meier said.
Even Yderstrom, more familiar with the metric system, might find fault with that definition of "a ton."
Meier's contention notwithstanding, the record suggests otherwise for Miami, which earned good wins at North Carolina and Georgia Tech last season and good victories at Michigan State and Georgia Tech this season, but nothing along the lines of beating a top-10 team. Those other wins, assuming Meier isn't counting the victory at Alaska-Anchorage earlier this season among the standouts, are good road wins for a team with ambitions to win a game in the NCAA tourmament, or perhaps reach a Sweet 16. Miami's ambitions deservedly seem slightly grander, and in that context, the lack of notable road victories against top-tier teams was glaring.
That this one came in a game in which Miami had to play from behind only makes it that much more impressive in the long run, even if it wasn't always an impressive showing from either team in the moment.
"It's really important for us, [to] keep our confidence up," Yderstrom said of the win. "We're competitors, and we want to win every single game we play, and ACC is tough every single game, especially on the road. So we're just really happy and proud of our effort."
Miami has its deficiencies without Stroman inside, and on a different day, one in which the Terrapins didn't miss quite so many layups or free throws, even Yderstrom's effort might not have saved the visitors. But even a team with as limited a recent history of postseason success as Miami knows that come March, all that matters is winning the game on that day. And on that count, even Meier was in agreement.
"This is Miami-Maryland, and it's a great game every time it happens -- I mean, earlier in my career, not so much, but ever since [Shenise Johnson] came on board, they've been great basketball games," Meier said. "Both Brenda and I want players to make plays. We give them a lot of space, we give them a lot of freedom. We trust their instincts, and it's usually a pretty awesome basketball game, and I just thought this was round three, round four, round five [of] Miami-Maryland."
As Johnson added with regard to her teammate, it might come as a surprise to those on the outside that Miami has three star guards, but it isn't news to the Hurricanes. They know exactly what they have in Yderstrom.
"She's just an awesome person, an awesome kid to coach, and we just love her," Meier said. "I'm glad she had a game like that tonight."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.
15dBonnie D. Ford