With the eighth-ranked Maryland women's basketball team set to make its final appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, coach Brenda Frese has been educating her team about the program's storied history in the event, including a record 10 championships.
Frese especially caught her players' attention when she told them the Terps had won the inaugural ACC tournament title in Charlottesville, Va., in 1978.
This season, Maryland (24-5, 12-4) earned a double bye into the quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed and will play tonight at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum against No. 6 seed North Carolina, which edged No. 11 Wake Forest, 69-65, Thursday night.
"For all of us, this ACC tournament is the biggest one because it is our last time doing this, and we'll be in the Big Ten next year," sophomore point guard Brene Moseley said. "I think the biggest thing for us is being able to seize the moment because every game isn't guaranteed. We're going down there as the last team to be able to take it away, so since this is our last time being able to win an ACC championship, we want to leave our mark."
The Terps are much better equipped than last season to do just that with a roster that includes 10 players who average at least 131/2 minutes per game. Over the final two games of the regular season, Maryland's reserves have averaged 44 points, and Frese and her players have talked extensively about depth making a difference when having to play three games in three days to reach the final.
Because of season-ending injuries to its starting backcourt, Maryland used a rotation of primarily six players in last year's tournament quarterfinals but managed to beat Wake Forest, 91-81. The Terps opened a 14-point halftime lead against North Carolina in the semifinals the next day before fading in a 72-65 loss.
"It's a huge advantage," senior forward Alyssa Thomas said of Maryland's depth. "Last year, we ran out of gas in the second game. This year, I think our numbers will definitely play to our strength, and we'll be able to keep people fresh."
Frese frequently substitutes in waves, but Thomas, who has averaged at least 30 minutes per game in each of the past three seasons, receives the least rest given her contributions in so many categories. Thomas — who leads Maryland in scoring, rebounding and steals and is tied for the lead in assists per game — was named ACC Player of the Year on Wednesday for a third consecutive season, joining Duke's Alana Beard as the only players to do so.
Among the most memorable of Thomas' many career highlights was being named tournament Most Valuable Player after she scored a career-high 29 points as a sophomore in a 68-65 victory over Georgia Tech in the championship game.
The ACC farewell tour for Thomas and the Terps has been nowhere near as celebratory as that moment. In its final season before departing for the Big Ten, Maryland did not get home-and-home series with rivals Duke or North Carolina.
The Terps instead played only road games against those ACC powers. In its last visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium as a member of the ACC, Maryland not only lost, 84-63, but spent the final few minutes having to endure a mock sendoff chant of "A-C-C" from the Duke student section.
The schedule also included a week off in early January, meaning Maryland wound up playing 14 straight games without an extended break. Still, the Terps closed the regular season by winning eight of nine, including four straight.
"Tremendous respect [for the ACC], and you always reflect on the wonderful battles that we've had," said Frese, who will be coaching in her 12th ACC tournament. "But I think at this time of year when you're playing in any tournament, postseason is the next phase of your season, so obviously we're really excited in having the double bye. We're hoping we're going in playing some of our best basketball."
No. 3 seed Maryland vs. No. 6 seed North Carolina
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