Primed for NCAA tournament, Maryland women still learning from embarrassing loss

No, Brenda Frese would rather not revisit the turning point of her team's season. Seeing it once in person was enough, thank you very much.

She was sick before the game, a Jan. 26 matchup with lowly Virginia Tech at Comcast Center. She felt worse during it, as the Hokies pulled off a stunning 75-69 upset of her eighth-ranked Terps. Now, even seeing Virginia Tech on TV is all the stomach-turning motivation Frese needs to leave for someplace devoid of maroon and orange.

"There's games that I don't watch," she said in her office last week, "but that one, purposefully, I didn't watch and will never go back and watch."

The loss itself, the longtime Maryland coach has realized, meant little but embarrassment after what she called "probably one of the lowest points I can ever remember" in College Park. But it was the 40 minutes afterward, in a crestfallen but committed locker room, that prefaced and perhaps predicted the start of what came next — wins in 10 of the No. 5 Terps' next 11 games, an ACC Championship and, after Monday night, a likely No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"It was pretty much, 'This is our season and we control our destiny,'" said guard Anjale Barrett, recalling the theme of the postgame talk. "So we can go either go up or down, and it's our choice."

Frese's team, in all likelihood, never would've fallen so far again, if only for two reasons: Alyssa Thomas and serendipitous ACC scheduling. Thomas, Maryland's do-it-all forward and eventual ACC Player of the Year, had remained planted on the bench throughout the stunning defeat with a sprained left thumb suffered in practice two days before.

Good thing she and a band of weary teammates fighting winter colds had the bye week ahead for ample rest and recovery. When they returned to the court seven days later Feb. 2, the Terps nearly doubled up Boston College, 86-44.

But that win, and the string of them that followed, were keyed in part by a lengthy team meeting not even 50 yards from the court where Maryland had just endured its season's darkest two hours. As Virginia Tech celebrated its improbable triumph inside Comcast Center, Terps players shuffled back to their locker room and Frese convened with her coaching staff.

Most post-game meetings take anywhere from five to 10 minutes. This one, Frese explained, went for "20, 25."

"It felt like an eternity," she said.

Frese and her assistants ran through their options: They could go berserk, kick the team out of the locker room and hope to pick up the pieces later. Or they could say their piece, let the players say theirs and hope something worth saving would emerge on a night when all seemed lost.

"We decided to kind of put it back on them and let them speak and let them communicate," Frese said. "I think that's where the most growth came, putting it back on the team and our players for ownership."

Once Frese spoke, everybody on the team did the same. More importantly, Barrett said, "everybody listened."

There was still anger and frustration, but it was shared by the entire team and softened by a pledge not to let that devastation ever seep into its locker room again. As reporters on deadline stewed in the team's media workroom, waiting for Frese and her players to break from what became a 40-minute therapy session, the Terps recommitted to the team that had won its first 16 games, not lost two of its past five.

"We needed to go around and really check in and made sure everybody bought back into the system and into what we were trying to do," center Lynetta Kizer said.

Though Frese hasn't yet clicked play on a DVD replay of the loss, Barrett has. And on the eve of a possible Final Four run, its contents still serve not only as a reminder of that forgettable January night, but also as a milepost for Maryland and how far it's come since it.

"Unfortunately, we had to learn from a loss," she said, "but I think it helped us in the end."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad