When the Maryland women's basketball team steps onto the court Monday night for its NCAA tournament second-round game at Comcast Center, the Terps will be without two starters and a reserve because of injury and another starter who's recovering from illness.
Maryland (25-7) has withstood playing with diminished numbers for much of the season to earn a No. 4 seed in the Bridgeport (Conn.) Region, and the six to seven players comprising the regular rotation have grown accustomed to performing at their peak despite logging extensive minutes.
It's an unusual circumstance the Terps' next opponent understands just the same. Fifth-seeded Michigan State (24-8) is missing four players but won 20 games for a 10th consecutive season, the longest active streak in the Big Ten, and were able to advance to the conference championship game for the second time in program history.
"I think obviously from both teams, they're terrific stories," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "And it says a lot of about the student-athletes involved in both programs in terms of not using the injuries as an excuse and overcoming adversity. The teams are mirror images of each other."
Maryland absorbed its first injury Oct. 20, when sophomore Brene Moseley tore the ACL in her left knee during a scrimmage. She was in line to become the starting point guard following the graduation of Anjale Barrett.
A month later, starting shooting guard Laurin Mincy tore the ACL in her right knee during Maryland's 90-71 road victory over then-No. 21 Nebraska in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The junior was second on Maryland in scoring a year ago and had 21 points and a career-high 12 rebounds in an 81-74 victory over Texas A&M in last season's regional semifinals.
In between those injuries, reserve center Essence Townsend became the third player to suffer a season-ending ACL tear.
The final blow to the roster came when freshman forward Tierney Pfirman dislocated her kneecap in practice Jan. 19, just hours before the team was to depart campus to board a flight to Atlanta for a game the next afternoon against Georgia Tech. Pfirman came back to play in four games but has missed the last three with mononucleosis and is out indefinitely.
"I think the coaches did a really good job of keeping us together and keeping us focused," said Maryland forward Malina Howard, who's averaging nearly 25 minutes as a freshman. "After one injury, they would give us something motivational to remind us that even when bad things happen, it makes you stronger."
Spartans coach Suzy Merchant has employed similar tactics to keep her charges' spirits high despite four players lost to season-ending injuries. She's reduced the frequency and length of practices and often has players only watch film in order to provide extra time for rest and recovery.
"I think we might be battling Maryland for most walk-throughs," Merchant said. "It's like the NBA."
Redshirt sophomore Madison Williams has been out all season since tearing the ACL in her left knee. The 6-foot-7 center and high school All-American sat out all but three games last season after tearing the same ACL Nov. 15 and missed all of 2010-11 with a torn right ACL.
Freshman guard Aerial Powers tore the Achilles' in her left ankle during practice six days after Moseley, and classmate Branndais Agee tore the ACL in her right knee at practice Dec. 13. Powers was in line to be a starter, and Agee had been working her way back into the rotation after missing the first four games with a stress fracture in her left foot.
Most recently, reserve freshman forward Akyah Taylor suffered a right orbital fracture and will miss the rest of the season.
"I think the one core thing that we see in our teams, each one of us, is that the kids that are playing, they're not going to make any excuses," Merchant said. "They just go out there and fight and compete and challenge themselves to be the best they can be and have every intent to go out there and win the game regardless of the circumstances."