The outcome of Saturday's No. 1 Maryland at No. 3 Duke showdown will most likely be determined by the play of Terps All-American Crystal Langhorne.
Maryland (18-0) will look to establish 6-foot-2 Langhorne inside early on while the Blue Devils must focus on stopping her. Expect to see Duke (17-0) mixing it up and showing the Terps a lot of different looks defensively to keep the ball out of Langhorne's hands.
It's an especially daunting task for Duke since the Blue Devils won't have the services of 6-5 center Chante Black, who is not yet ready to return from a knee injury that has kept her on the bench all season.
That's not good news for Duke, which graduated three starters from last year's NCAA runner-up squad. Maryland, meanwhile, returns everyone from its championship game starting lineup, and has added a former national high school player of the year.
Langhorne, a junior, has been nothing short of spectacular this season, averaging 15.3 points -- she's one of six Terps averaging at least 11.0 points -- while knocking down nearly 80 percent of her shots from the floor. In the past, Duke has tried several different ways to contain Langhorne, who is nearly unstoppable if you try to handle her with just one defender.
But Duke coach Gail Goestenkors is familiar with Langhorne, having coached her several years ago with USA Basketball. And the Blue Devils were particularly successful in limiting Langhorne last April in the NCAA final. They continuously brought over a second post player to double team Langhorne, making it difficult for her to score or find open teammates (though she did manage four assists). Unfortunately for them, the other Terps picked up the slack to win 78-75 in overtime. But Langhorne attempted only six shots.
Without Black this time around, the Blue Devils will most likely team up 6-7 Alison Bales and sophomore Carrem Gay, or perhaps one of a handful of undersized but very athletic freshmen, to defend Langhorne.
Bales could be a good deterrent to Langhorne's effectiveness in the paint. She is one of the best shot blockers in the college game, which will force Langhorne to try and work around Bales instead of over her. Still, against 6-9 Alyssa DeHaan last week, Langhorne made 13 of 14 field-goal attempts for 28 points in a win over Michigan State.
If Maryland -- which overcame a 13-point deficit to defeat Duke for the crown nine months ago -- has the patience to feed Langhorne and get her off to a good start, then everyone else should get open looks. Duke, meanwhile, builds momentum and confidence with its defense. Shutting down the Terps' inside game allows Duke to rebound and run. With Bales securing the boards, Duke will often release guard Abby Waner to leak out on the fast break for easy baskets.
The new weapon for Maryland this year is the bench spark provided by newcomer Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who became eligible only last month after transferring from Tennessee. She typically enters the game at the point guard position, moving Kristi Toliver over to the 2-guard, where she promptly starts shooting 3-pointers. Toliver, who hit the 3-pointer to force last season's championship into overtime, hit three in a row as soon as Wiley-Gatewood stepped on the floor against Michigan State on Saturday. With six Maryland players averaging in double figures, Duke will have to pick its poison and hope it can force some Terps into having an off night.
A new development at Duke this season is the attacking mind-set of senior point guard Lindsey Harding. The reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year has become more of an offensive threat, averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game. Harding will need to be poised, yet aggressive, to force the Maryland guards into expending energy on both ends of the floor. Harding needs to control the tempo and Duke prefers transition baskets to its half-court sets in the Maryland matchup.
The battle on the boards should be the key stat to watch. Duke (plus-11.5 rebounding margin) has to deny second-chance opportunities and will need defensive boards to get into its running game. Maryland (plus-17) is relentless on the glass and utilizes that advantage to physically and mentally break down opponents.
The irony of Toliver's game-tying 3-point shot in the championship is that the 3-ball had relatively little impact on the rivalry last year. In the other three meetings the team that made the most 3-pointers lost -- which only clarifies the importance of the inside attack.
Duke's 3-point shooting has been off the mark this season (31.4 percent), but knocking down a few of those would help alleviate the pressure. Balanced scoring inside and out will be essential, and nothing fires up 8,000 Cameron Crazies like the long ball. Maryland has three sharpshooters hitting better than 40 percent from downtown (Toliver, Wiley-Gatewood and Marissa Coleman). They'll be ready and waiting if Langhorne is forced to kick the ball out of a double team.
This rivalry does not appear to have the same animosity as the Duke-Maryland men's game, and it has not reached the level of Duke-North Carolina just yet. But the familiarity must be breeding a little bit of contempt, this being the fifth matchup in the last 12 months. A mutual respect has definitely developed between the two programs.
The games have meant so much more in the last couple of years, particularly since Maryland ended its 14-game losing streak in the series by knocking Duke out of the ACC and NCAA tournaments last spring. In Maryland coach Brenda Frese's first season in 2003, the Blue Devils won the two meetings by a combined 93 points. Four years later, the Terps were at the top.
Frese says Goestenkors triggered the success by setting the bar so high.
"Duke was who everyone else in the ACC measured themselves against," Frese said. "Finally beating them was a big hurdle for us to overcome and it gave us the confidence to win it all."
Duke officials on Wednesday announced that Saturday's game, as well as the Feb. 25 contest against UNC at Cameron Indoor Stadium, are sold out. The games mark just the fifth and sixth advanced sellouts in program history.
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.