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BEANTOWN BLUES

BOSTON - In a city famous for cursed sports teams, Duke could not exorcise its own postseason demons.

Playing on the biggest stage in the sport, the Blue Devils squandered a 13-point second-half lead to a young and talented Maryland squad that edged Duke, 78-75, in the National Championship game.

After the game, Terrapin head coach Brenda Frese said "Neither team deserved to lose this game," and in some senses she was absolutely right.

The Blue Devils were exactly six seconds shy of taking home that elusive first National Championship before Terrapin point guard Kristi Toliver hit a rainbow three-pointer over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-7 Alison Bales to send the game to overtime.

What will be remembered most, though, is the final outcome. At the end of regulation and in overtime, Maryland scored when it mattered most, sending Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors and the Blue Devils back to Durham empty-handed once again.

"I just feel utter disappointment right now for my players and specifically for my seniors," Goestenkors said. "It's killing me right now. Not for myself but for my players."

The defeat Tuesday night marks Duke's second loss in the National Championship game in program history and the fourth time the team has reached the Final Four only to lose during the season's final weekend. Under Goestenkors, the Blue Devils have made the NCAAs 12 times without ever winning it all.

Goestenkors' squad reached its first National Championship game in 1999, catapulting Duke up the short list of women's basketball's best programs-a group that includes the likes of Tennessee and Connecticut. But Duke has never been able to break through and win it all, despite top-flight recruiting classes, lofty preseason expectations and regular-season and ACC Tournament success.

Certainly, the Tournament and Final Four appearances should be respected and revered. So should the five consecutive ACC Championships Duke took home between 2000 and 2004, along with the six straight 30-win seasons the Blue Devils have run off.

There is no doubt that each trip to the postseason and specifically to the Final Four has been different. The players have changed and Duke has faced a variety of opponents. Four trips to the final weekend is certainly no guarantee of a National Championship, nor is a certain number of Tournament appearances.

In the grand scheme, though, there is no denying that every year Duke has reached the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils' season has ended in a loss. Right or wrong, Duke is a program the media and other institutions look up to, and people will continue to talk about the team's high-profile failures as much as some of its successes.

Many coaches have worn the label of "best coach never to have won a National Championship." Even before this year Goestenkors had been mentioned in that category. Tuesday's loss will only serve to drum up more talk about Duke's inability to take the final step in its meteoric rise to the top of the women's game.

Before Tuesday's game, Goestenkors said she was not concerned about Duke's lack of national titles because she knows the school will win one eventually. If history is any indication, Goestenkors is right. Throughout the history of college basketball many great coaches have struggled to break through and win their first.

On the men's side, just ask Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, or North Carolina coaches Dean Smith and Roy Williams. They all eventually jettisoned that label after several near-wins at the game's greatest stage.

Athletic programs are about the players as much as they are about the coaches. The school's best women's player of all-time, Alana Beard, left Duke in 2004 without a title despite making two trips to the Final Four. Senior All-American Monique Currie, who chose to return for a post-graduation year to finish her eligibility, will also leave without one.

"I don't feel very good about how things ended," Currie said. "We tried as hard as we could and we left it out on the floor and that's all you can really ask for. But it really hurts right now."

Goestenkors and the Blue Devils will have to wait at least one more year before breaking through. Seniors Currie, Mistie Williams and Jessica Foley played the last game of their careers in the TD Banknorth Garden Tuesday night, leaving Duke with some holes as it looks toward next season.

Goestenkors has recruited another top-notch class, and there are several returning players who are ready to step up into more prominent roles.

There is no doubt that Duke will be back in the National Championship game sometime again in the future with a chance to erase a history marked by painful postseason exits.

The question is: When will it finally happen?

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