Paths finally cross for super seniors

Marissa Coleman (42 points) and Angel McCoughtry (22) led their teams Saturday. Getty Images

RALEIGH, N.C. -- It might have happened that Angel McCoughtry and Marissa Coleman both would be playing for Maryland in the Elite Eight on Monday night (ESPN, 7 ET). If that were the case, though, fair to say the opponent wouldn't be Louisville.

The Cardinals have a lot going for them. The energetic X's and O's coach, Jeff Walz. The presence and resilience of Candyce Bingham. The quick learning ability of Deseree' Byrd, a sophomore in her first season as point guard. And role players who accept their assignments and don't try to do more than they're supposed to.

But to get to this place, where the program has never been before, it did take a player the caliber of McCoughtry.

Being from Baltimore, McCoughtry looked at going to Maryland. Her first choice was St. John's, but her SAT score was a problem.

She was frustrated and ready to just go to a junior college. Her father, Roi, was dead-set against that. So McCoughtry went to the Patterson School in North Carolina, a college prep institution, for a year.

She half-jokingly says it was like jail; there were no televisions in rooms, no late-night snacks available. She'd get bored and hungry at night, and the time seemed to pass at an exceptionally slow pace.

During that year, which she calls unpleasant but still great for her growth, she took a recruiting trip to Louisville, not having any real idea where it was or knowing anything about it. Once there, she was intrigued by the town and the campus, but Maryland was one of the schools interested in her, too.

Among the things that went into her final decision was knowing that the Terps had signed another 6-foot-1 versatile guard/forward from the state of Maryland: Coleman. Thinking their games were potentially too similar, McCoughtry turned away from the Terps.

Then, of all things, one of the Maryland assistants who recruited her, Walz, took over last year at Louisville.

So now it's Walz and McCoughtry on the same side, going against Brenda Frese, Kristi Toliver and Coleman, as one of their respective teams will be the first squad to punch its ticket to St. Louis and the Final Four.

"It's funny how things work out in life," McCoughtry said. "This is a great opportunity, and it's going to be a lot of fun. I wouldn't ask to play another team. This is the best situation, me being from Maryland."

Coleman feels like things couldn't have gone better for her, either. She was born in Portland, Ore., but moved to Maryland when she was about 3. Growing up in Cheltenham, Md., in the greater D.C. area, Coleman at first wanted no part of playing for Maryland. The Terps had once been a power, but that was well before Coleman was old enough to have any awareness of it.

So she wasn't at all sure that Maryland could be good enough to compete for a national championship. She began to realize during the recruiting process, though, that Maryland could reach that level with her help.

And indeed, she won a national championship as a 19-year-old freshman at Maryland, along with Toliver.

As Toliver pointed out Sunday, she and Coleman are the only players left in the NCAA tournament who already have won a national championship. Coleman had friends at other ACC schools, like Abby Waner at Duke, and said she has thought at times about how many good opponents she has faced who ended their careers without a national championship.

"I've talked to Abby about our championship," Coleman says of that 2006 NCAA title game victory over Waner's Blue Devils. "And she says how she was 15 seconds away from winning it. And when you really think about that and put it in perspective, it's like, 'Wow, that's true. What we accomplished was huge.'"

Coleman still has another shot at a championship, but to get there, she'll have to go through McCoughtry, who wants to take her program to where it hasn't been before. They are both players capable of taking over games. Coleman did it Saturday with 42 points -- a Sweet 16 record and the fifth-best performance in women's NCAA tournament history -- in a come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt.

McCoughtry didn't have that huge of an offensive game in her team's victory over Baylor, but she didn't need to. However, McCoughtry has gone off that way before, too. She had a career-high 43 points against Providence in January.

"It's tremendous and special for the game to be able to showcase these elite players," Frese said. "That's the exciting thing -- it's going to be a lot of fun to have these marquee matchups."

Of course, the coaching matchup has a lot of intrigue, too, as Frese, 38, and Walz, 37, used to work together -- one season at Minnesota and five at Maryland -- and orchestrated that 2006 national championship. To highlight the strengths of one is not to suggest those are weaknesses in the other. They are only generalizations, but they hold nuggets of truth.

Frese is more likely to be the upbeat sort, Walz more likely to be kind of a "tough" guy. That doesn't mean Walz won't dole out plenty of smiles and pats on the back, or that Frese doesn't get ticked off and yell when she needs to. Frese is more offensive-minded, Walz more defensive-minded. And that also fits the personnel they have now.

They balanced each other well at Maryland, and they know each other's tendencies as second nature. Frese says her Terps will have to be prepared for the variety of defensive looks that the Cardinals will use. Walz knows that when the moments are the biggest, Coleman and Toliver have proven to be at their best.

"There's not going to be any surprise of individual skill," Walz said. "Now it's just going to come down to what team executes the best. Marissa was fantastic yesterday, and it wasn't a big shock to me. I've seen her do it before."

But guess who didn't really "see" it Saturday? Coleman's mom. A fixture at games, Joni Coleman couldn't take the stress of watching the Terps in peril during what could have been her daughter's last collegiate game.

"I always look for her, you can't help but look for your family," Coleman said of glances into the crowd. "I know my dad is always standing off in the corner or something. My mom -- I was looking for her toward the latter part of the game [Saturday] and she was nowhere to be found. And I automatically knew she couldn't take it.

"Sometimes she can't watch. I think back to Utah, when we played them in Albuquerque [in the 2006 Elite Eight]. And I said, 'Mom, I didn't see you the entire overtime.' And she said, 'I couldn't watch it. I was walking around the concourse.'"

On Saturday, Joni was doing the same thing; she was too nervous to watch the Terps rally behind her daughter. But Marissa understood.

"She didn't see any of the comeback. She was walking around the concourse with her ears plugged. But if she could hear the crowd, she knew we were doing well because we had so many people there. She can't take it; she knows how bad I want this. It's hard on her."

McCoughtry wants it badly, too, but that is the nature of athletics at this level. Tonight, for one superstar or the other, a season will end … but not a career. Both will be at the top of the list come WNBA draft day, and Toliver will be there with them. Bingham has a game that will help a pro team, too.

McCoughtry and Coleman played each other a few times in high school, and were on the same USA Basketball team in 2007 that won the Pan Am Games gold medal. No one will be surprised if the two are someday on the same U.S. Olympic team -- even if their games are similar.

Monday, though, is the intersection for two seniors who grew up in Maryland and possibly could have played together in college … but didn't. It worked out just the way it was supposed to for both sides.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.