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‘We won’t ever know’: Maryland women’s basketball left to process the end of a brilliant season because of coronavirus pandemic

Blair Watson said she loved everyone in the room.

Kaila Charles said she would not want to conclude her four years at the University of Maryland with any other group of people.

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The air hung thick with emotion Thursday as the Maryland women’s basketball team confronted the end of a deeply promising season, cut off by an unexpected opponent — the surging coronavirus pandemic.

Terps players and coach Brenda Frese knew bad news was probably coming. They had guessed as much when the NBA suspended its season and the cancellations of college tournaments began piling up on Thursday morning.

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Still, they gathered for practice at the Xfinity Center on Thursday afternoon, hoping to stay sharp and keep a wonderful run going a little while longer. But then Frese saw deputy athletic director Colleen Sorem walking down the arena stairs, and she knew time had run out.

Sorem told her the NCAA was about to cancel March Madness because of the coronavirus pandemic. And Frese was left to gather her team in a nearby lounge to process an odyssey that would never have a proper ending.

The Terps had come so far, winning 17 straight games after a Jan. 9 loss at Iowa dropped them to a disappointing 11-4. They had rolled through the Big Ten tournament, winning every game by at least 12 points, and were almost certain to hear their name called as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Now they knew that announcement, scheduled for Monday, would never come. The four seniors on the team — Charles, Watson, Stephanie Jones and Sara Vujacic — would never pull on Maryland uniforms again. After startling second-round upsets had ended their previous two seasons, players felt confident they would craft a better conclusion this time around. But they’d never have a chance to prove it.

Frese tried to find silver linings during a conference call with reporters Friday morning. At least her players had watched confetti fall as they celebrated their Big Ten championship in Indianapolis last weekend. A team that had discovered its collective fire over the course of a bumpy season got to finish with a rousing victory. Even if it wasn’t the one they had all dreamed of.

Sadness mixed with pride as everyone on the team spoke in that lounge Thursday.

“I think it was a mix of both,” Frese said. “Obviously, the sadness that you’re not going to be able to continue on but also being able to remind this team of our ending. We’ll be one of the very few teams to end with a win and confetti coming down. We’re one of the few fortunate ones that got one incredible week. … For us, I think we probably had better closure than a lot of people out there.”

Frese expressed no bitterness about the cancellation of the tournament and said her players also understood the larger stakes for a world that’s been thrown into uncertainty by coronavirus. “It’s bigger than sports,” she said.

As players expressed their feelings on social media Thursday, they celebrated the unity they’d achieved but lamented opportunities lost. “I feel robbed,” Charles wrote on Twitter, accompanying her words with tear and broken-heart emojis. “Family forever,” she wrote in a subsequent post accompanying a team photo.

The news was most difficult for the four seniors, who left a legacy worthy of Frese’s previous great classes, even if they never led Maryland back to the Final Four. Charles is an All-American who will go down as one of the best all-around players in program history. Jones built on the legacy left by her big sister, Brionna, and the Havre de Grace native became a consistent force in her own right. Watson became the team’s defensive ace after working back from a knee injury that cut off her potentially brilliant sophomore season. Vujacic, a guard from Slovenia, did not play as much as the others but delivered ebullient energy when she did.

“Our hearts go out to the seniors,” Frese said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, them not getting this opportunity back and thinking about where they led us, the heights of this season. So not knowing the ending for them I think is obviously pretty sad.”

Many observers have speculated that the NCAA might allow seniors in spring sports to play in 2021 after their 2020 seasons were canceled because of the pandemic. Frese said she would support such a move but said the basketball season was probably too far along for such a policy to benefit her program.

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“Although I’d take it,” she said, laughing. “For all four seniors to come back.”

Frese has guided three teams to the Final Four and one to a national championship, so she knows what it takes. As she spends the next few weeks at home with her family, unable to hit the road for recruiting because of state travel restrictions, she’ll live with the knowledge that this team carried such potential. She watched them grow into a close group led by the players as much as the coaches. Their cohesion reminded her of the 2005-2006 team that went all the way.

“They really were on quite a mission,” she said. “There’s always the what-ifs, and I think this group was probably going to have an opportunity to hang another banner in Xfinity. … We won’t ever know.”

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