Rebels get defensive, knock off defending champs

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Maryland didn't lose its crown on Tuesday; Armintie Price and Mississippi stole it with four years of work and about 10 minutes of perfection.

The seventh-seeded Rebels stunned the Terrapins 89-78 on Tuesday night, becoming the second team in as many days to send a No. 2 seed home before the Sweet 16 and just the third team to oust the reigning champs so early in the NCAA Tournament (Old Dominion did not qualify for the tournament in 1986 after winning the previous year).

And four months after watching their signature pressure defense collapse in a 110-79 rout against the Terrapins during a tournament in the Bahamas, the Rebels proved that experience is only as valuable as what you make of it in the moment.

After falling behind 6-2 in the game's opening minutes, Mississippi put on a defensive display for the ages. The run began with 10 unanswered points, culminating in a layup from Armintie Price that forced Maryland coach Brenda Frese to take a timeout with just less than 16 minutes remaining, despite a looming television timeout at the next whistle.

Inside of four minutes, the Rebels had already forced six turnovers. And they were just getting started. By the time Price cut through traffic for a another layup with eight minutes remaining, the lead had grown to 35-12.

"That's how we play when we play best," coach Carol Ross said. "We did the same thing to LSU [in a 77-74 win on Jan. 11]. We jumped them, we throttled them and went into halftime with an 18-point lead and held on for dear life."

No player looked more lost during Mississippi's run than Maryland point guard Kristi Toliver, who came off the bench for the second game in a row but never really appeared to find her rhythm. The hero of last year's Final Four, Toliver's confusion fed Mississippi's mounting confidence.

"We can see it in their eyes, like we saw it in Toliver's eyes," senior forward Jada Mincy said. "And that breathes energy into us, when we see it in their eyes, when we see them laying back and looking around, staggering and not knowing where to go. That's fear. And when we see fear, we attack. And it works for us. It's ugly, but it works."

Maryland was the team for whom experience was supposed to be an asset. After all, it was the Terrapins who returned all five starters from last year's championship team.

But the Rebels had experience of a different kind in seniors Price, Mincy and Ashley Awkward, who combined for 58 points in the win. Those three arrived in Oxford, Miss., with Ross four years ago, looking to revive a program that looked nothing like the glory days of Van Chancellor and Jennifer Gillom.

"When they came in, we all came in together, and Ole Miss had kind of fallen on hard times," Ross said. "And they expected to win; I expected to win right away."

That's not exactly what happened. Ross quickly turned around a losing record, winning 17 games in her first season, but postseason success was harder to come by. After first-round losses her first two seasons, the Rebels had to settle for the WNIT last March.

The senior class also dealt with adversity off the court, including the death of Price's mother from ovarian cancer last summer, a tragedy which left her debating whether she should play this season.

No player had been more important to Ross' program than Price, both in the amazing array of numbers she piled up on the court and the attitude she brought off the court.

"Armintie's enthusiasm, even as a freshman, was so refreshing," Ross said. "And for a locker room full of kids who were used to losing, and to have her come in like they had a cheerleader of the L.A. Lakers, they thought every day was great. And we fed off that. She is just one of those high-energy, fun, enthusiastic people. And she's that way in practice … she loves being around her teammates."

She did return to play her senior season with Mincy and Awkward, but early returns didn't offer much hope that this year's team would fare much differently than the three preceding seasons. Most glaring was the loss against Maryland when, despite forcing 26 turnovers, the Rebels couldn't contain Maryland's size and athleticism.

But the seniors took it in stride. They had been through rough times often enough to know not to worry about a bad loss in November.

"It was like the third game we played or whatever, so we hadn't identified ourselves," Mincy said. "We didn't know who we were. Me, Ashley and Armintie had to define the team, define the identity of our team. Last year, we suffered trying to find identity the whole year. And we knew if we didn't find an identity, we were going to suffer again. … We would have to do the small things, we would have to outhustle people, get on the ground and get dirty."

Which is where we rejoin those magical minutes in the first half, when Mississippi's flawless execution exposed every flaw Maryland had. And some they probably didn't know they had.

"Coach Ross told us before the game that if this was going to be a pretty game, we were going to lose," Mincy said. "Every pretty game we've had, trying to make everything perfect, we've always lost. As long as it's ugly, it's 'Rebel Ball.' "

With apologies to the team's aesthetic desires, the Rebels went so far to the extreme of ugly during their run that they crossed over into beautiful.

"We were pretty much at our best today, when you saw us coming out of the gate," Awkward said. "It's always been about defense. That's who we are and what we do, and it's what makes us a great team."

Mississippi got arguably its best offensive performance of the season, including a brilliant 9-for-12 shooting night from Price, 22 points from Awkward and four 3-pointers for Alliesha Easley (who entered the game shooting less than 30 percent from behind the arc). But as Awkward suggested, everything built off the team's foundation of defense.

And that's a foundation anchored by three seniors who finally get a chance to live out the goals they set when they arrived on campus four years ago.

"They've got a strong belief in themselves and when they get out and play like that, that's how we can beat people that are really better than us," Ross said. "We can take them apart."

Experience won out on Tuesday night in Hartford. And the defending champs are going home as a result.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.