OPINION: RIVALRY LOSES LUSTER ONLY TO THE PUNDITS

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

As the story goes, Cole Field House was rocking the day Virginia and Maryland played each other in 1993.

But this ACC matchup was different: it was the women who were able to sell out the cavernous arena on the Maryland campus. Hoos and Terps fans chanted, waved pompoms, and were on the edge of their seats as the two top-ranked teams in the country played a triple-overtime thriller, with Virginia coming out on top by a single point.

Fast forward to 2000. The setting is Cole Field House, with Maryland still in the white uniforms, Virginia still in the orange and blue. Chris Weller still patrolled the Terp sidelines, Debbie Ryan pacing in front of the Cavaliers' bench.

On this day, however, some of the general admission tickets are being given away. No television cameras are recording the game for regional broadcast over the ACC television network. You could easily find any courtside seat you want, since there were perhaps about 500 people in attendance.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has been extremely strong in basketball for some time. Maryland and Virginia have historically had strong programs, while North Carolina was able to take home a national championship in the 1990s, and Duke was the runner-up team in 1999.

But publicly, the luster has gone out of the Maryland-Virginia rivalry. Usually, when Virginia and Maryland women meet on the field of play -- especially in lacrosse, softball, and field hockey -- great things are expected. What has happened to the hoopsters?

It can be argued that Maryland and Virginia have somehow become victims of their own success.

Women's basketball has enjoyed extraordinary growth in many places in the country even before the triumph of the U.S. women's basketball team in the 1996 OIympic Games in Atlanta.

In the early days of women's basketball, teams were synonymous with eras: Immaculata in the early 70s, Delta State and Old Dominion in the late 70s, Texas in the 80s, Maryland and Virginia the early 90s, Tennessee in the mid- to late-90s.

But in the early 2000s, the game of women's basketball has become too mercurial to define in terms of just one team. The competition amongst regions has come to define the game. It's not just a matter of whether Tennessee can win four titles in five seasons. The questions now revolve around whether Southern, Eastern, or Midwestern basketball is the best around.

This leaves individual teams and rivalries sometimes playing a secondary role. And if you're a team like Maryland, which won only three games in 1999, there are many, many more schools waiting to jump in and recruit those at the top of the list of incoming freshmen.

Though there were not many fans inside Cole Field House in that February 2000 matchup between Virginia and Maryland, what they watched was a throwback to the early 90s. The teams were evenly matched, though Virginia was ranked 16th at the time; Maryland had an RPI ranking of roughly 100.

After trading baskets early, the Terps took a small lead which grew and shrunk in a tense second half.

Both Ryan and Weller coached their hearts out, like they were trying to win a spot in the Final Four.

Finally, it was over, with Maryland pulling a 76-71 upset victory.

The white-clad Maryland players piled into the middle of the floor, gleeful after beating their neighborhood rival.

The pundits said this wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Perhaps this is the nature of competition.

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