COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) - Navy hit its stride at just the right time, winning its conference tournament to earn an NCAA tournament bid with a first-round game just down the road from its campus.
The catch: The venue happens to be the home court of the fifth-ranked team in the country. The Midshipmen's reward for their Patriot League title is a No. 15 seed in the Raleigh Regional and a bus ride to College Park to face second-seeded Maryland on Saturday.
"Don't be surprised," Navy coach Stefanie Pemper said before Friday's practice, "if you see something you've never seen tomorrow."
Pemper was talking about the various wrinkles she's thrown into the game plan this week, realizing that the usual schemes just aren't going to work against the taller, stronger, faster Terrapins.
But if her team should actually pull off the win, it would truly be something never seen. Navy (18-13) has never beaten a nationally ranked team - 0-3 all-time. Navy has also never beaten an Atlantic Coast Conference team - also 0-3 all-time.
A No. 15 seed has never beaten a No. 2 seed in the NCAA women's tournament - 0-68 all-time. Pemper even said that at practice this week her young team of four sophomore starters talked about how playing Maryland will help the Mids in 2012-13 - already thinking about next year before this one is done.
Pemper, however, has already played a role in a one-of-a-kind moment in NCAA history. She was an assistant coach on the Harvard team that stunned Stanford in 1998, the only time a No. 16 seed has toppled a No. 1 seed in men's or women's basketball.
"I don't think we could just go `status quo' this week," Pemper said. "We worked on some different things, which takes time. The scouting report on Maryland can be a little briefer than most scouting reports. It's not like this kid can only go left, this kid can only shoot the 3, this kid's a driver, and this kid's a shooter.
"They're all pretty versatile. They can shoot, they can drive, they can go left, they can go right."
The second game features seventh-seeded Louisville vs. 10th-seeded Michigan State.
Adding to Navy's challenge is that ACC champion Maryland (28-4) won't be overlooking this game, not after what happened last year when another nearby team - Georgetown - came to College Park and routed the Terrapins by 22 points in the second round of the NCAAs.
Navy, of course, is no Georgetown. The Hoyas were a Big East team ranked in the Top 25, but the early exit didn't sit well for a Maryland program with three appearances in the regional finals and a national championship in the last six years.
"We know that it's something that we don't want to go through again," senior center Lynetta Kizer said, "so that's definitely in the back of our minds. If anything, that's going to push us harder."
Maryland and Navy have never played, even though they're only 30 miles apart. Terrapins coach Brenda Frese not only has to study an unfamiliar team - she has to study an unfamiliar team with something new up its sleeve.
"We game-plan for that. You absolutely have to do something different," Frese said. "It's a different level of play in terms of conferences, and we fully expect that. That's something that we as a coaching staff have prepared our team for. We expect anything and everything."
While Navy is getting its first taste of College Park, Louisville coach Jeff Walz is very much a familiar face. He was an assistant under Frese for five seasons and was on the bench for the Terrapins' national title run in 2006 before taking the top job with the Cardinals of the Big East in 2007.
"I've got a lot of fond memories of the success that we've had here," Walz said.
Louisville (22-9) and Maryland are pegged to have a Walz-vs.-Frese rematch in the second round on Monday. Walz came out on top the first time they met, when the Cardinals beat the Terrapins to advance to the Final Four in 2009.
But first he must first deal with Big Ten stalwart Michigan State. The Spartans (20-11) were sputtering offensively during a four-game losing streak in January, but they've since won eight of 10 with senior Porsche Poole on an extended scoring spree.
"We lost our confidence, and confidence is everything," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "When you have it, really good things can happen. When you question and doubt yourself, it can go the other way. I think our kids, to their credit, put their nose to the grindstone and got after it."
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP