COLLEGE PARK — The crutches that came to symbolize last season have long since been stored away, and the three Maryland women's basketball players no longer need to run up and down the Comcast Center stairs to work their way back from knee surgeries while their depleted team practices on the court below.
Maryland somehow made it to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in 2013 despite losing guards Laurin Mincy and Brene Moseley and center Essence Townsend to anterior cruciate ligament tears, and forward Tierney Pfirman to a dislocated kneecap and mononucleosis.
One year later, the Terps (26-6), who were eliminated by top-seeded and eventual national champion Connecticut last season, have arrived at another Sweet 16 as a No. 4 seed and again will be an underdog to a No. 1 seed — this time, Tennessee (29-5) — on Sunday at KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. The Volunteers, who are led by senior guard Meighan Simmons (16.1 points per game), are among the national leaders in field-goal-percentage defense (36.5 percent) and rebounding margin (plus-11.8).
That's where the similarities end. If Maryland's 2012-13 season was a struggle against attrition and doubt, this season is a celebration of renewed hope.
"We have more confidence and depth, and you need those extra legs to be able to keep winning," said Moseley, who tore the ACL in her left knee in October 2012. "When you have only seven people left, you can be prepared, but you might not have all the pieces that you need."
Hanging in Moseley's dorm room is a white, hospital wristband bearing her name and the date of her surgery: Nov. 2, 2012. "I walk past it every day to show where I came from," she said.
Last season was characterized by scenes of Moseley, Mincy and Townsend on crutches, slowly walking, one behind the other, from the locker room to the court in their warm-up suits on game days. And by training tables set up behind the baselines so that the Terps' injured players could be near their teammates while trainers attended to them during practice. The roster was so thinned by injuries that Maryland could afford to practice only up to 75 minutes two or three times a week.
"Last year was like we were limping to the finish line," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said in an interview. "I really felt like going to the Sweet 16 with the rash of injuries we had was like getting to the Final Four. In my coaching career, I've never had a season like that. It is a blessing this year to be able to have everybody healthy."
Then Frese reached out and knocked twice on an armrest in front of her. Given what transpired last season, it was hard to blame her for being superstitious.
This season, Maryland's luck has flipped.
All of the injured players returned and were joined by a freshman class that has contributed immediately. After senior star Alyssa Thomas, three of Maryland's next four leading scorers — guards Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Lexie Brown and center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) — are freshmen.
"It's by far the deepest [team] I've ever had," said Frese, who is in her 12th season at Maryland. "I think the biggest thing is every player can contribute."
Ten Maryland players played at least five minutes in their 69-64, second-round victory over Texas at Comcast Center on Tuesday night. Afterward, Frese joined the players in a buoyant, postgame dance in the locker room.
Among the Terps contributing against the Longhorns was Mincy, whose eight first-half points helped keep Maryland close before Thomas found her game in the second half.
"We're back at the same spot we were last year — the Sweet 16 — but with the addition of so many players, including the freshmen," Mincy said. "It's really exciting to know we have everybody healthy this year."
As she spoke, Mincy gazed up at the Comcast Center steps she was navigating at this time a year ago to regain her strength. Mincy said her recovery required a "whole different level of toughness" than what she was accustomed to.
"We just did a lot of stairs and lateral slides on the court," she said "I look up at those stairs every day. I'm glad that I'm on this floor now."