There was a time three months ago when they were a 6-2 team, missing their star player from the previous season and unsure of the road ahead.
The Maryland women’s basketball team found itself in those early days of disappointment — found its identity as a joyous team without an obvious center.
The Terps haven’t lost since, and they had the perfect chance to reflect on their journey Monday night as they found out they will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which will begin this weekend.
They expressed a powerful belief that they belong with the top programs in the sport, including the Notre Dame team that handed the Terps their last defeat on Dec. 3.
“We had to take a hard look at ourselves,” sophomore Lexie Brown said. “Notre Dame is an amazing team, and we’re going to have to beat an amazing team like that if we’re going to win a national championship. We took it upon ourselves to try to get up in the ranks with the UConns and the Notre Dames. I hope we get another crack at them. I feel like we’re a different team than we were in November.”
Maryland coach Brenda Frese seemed to enjoy the tournament selection evening as much as anyone, bopping with her twin seven-year-old sons, Markus and Tyler, as the program’s fans whooped behind her. But she quickly cautioned that the No. 1 seed won’t mean anything once play begins.
“I think it shows we had a really consistent season, when you go undefeated and win your conference tournament,” Frese said. “But really at this point, none of it matters. You’ve got to be ready to come out and play your best basketball. But it’s nice to see Maryland recognized as a No. 1 seed.”
Maryland will play its tournament opener at 1:30 p.m. Saturday against New Mexico State and could meet Princeton, the only undefeated team in women’s college basketball, in the second round Monday.
The Terps will host the first two rounds of the tournament and would move on to Spokane, Wash., if they advance to the Sweet 16. If the seeds hold, Maryland would meet former Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke in the round of sixteen and Tennessee — a team the Terps upset in last year’s tournament — with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
It’s perhaps the toughest road for any top seed in the tournament, though the players hardly seemed daunted as they celebrated Monday.
“We’ve been a target all season in the Big Ten,” said senior guard Laurin Mincy. “We were the team to beat. So we’re looking for everyone’s best punch.”
The Terps refused to be baited into any questions about their draw, with each player finding a way to cram the phrase “one game at a time” into her remarks.
Sophomore center Brionna Jones laughed at herself as she lapsed into the cliche. “We look at it,” she said of the possible opponents ahead. “But we still have to beat the first team.”
“They’re all hard roads at this point,” Frese said.
The Maryland women earned their seeding with perhaps the most dominant regular season of Frese’s 13-year tenure in College Park. They went 30-2 overall, including an undefeated debut run through the Big Ten and a championship in their first Big Ten tournament. Their last loss came Dec. 3 against former ACC nemesis Notre Dame, the same team that eliminated Maryland in the Final Four last season.
Maryland had earned three previous No. 1 seeds — in 1989 under former coach Chris Weller and in 2008 and 2009 under Frese. The Terps won the national championship in 2006 as a No. 2 seed and made the Final Four last year as a No. 4 seed.
Maryland joined defending champion Connecticut, Notre Dame and South Carolina as the top seeds in this year’s tournament.
Unlike the Maryland men, who made their first NCAA tournament in five years on Sunday, the women are old hands at March Madness. They’ve made the tournament 11 times in Frese’s 13 seasons.
The Terps watched from courtside at Xfinity Center as the brackets were announced on ESPN. A crowd of their most ardent supporters sat behind them in the stands, hoisting signs that read “Terp Women Rule” and “Fear the Brenda.”
This season’s performance was particularly impressive because the Terps did it after losing jack-of-all-trades superstar Alyssa Thomas, arguably the greatest player in program history. In place of Thomas’ singular dominance, Maryland overwhelmed opponents with the quartet of Mincy and sophomores Brown, Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
All four averaged between 12.1 and 13.7 points a game, giving Maryland one of the most balanced attacks in the country. If one star had a poor outing, another invariably filled the vacuum. Opposing coaches had little idea where to turn their defensive focus.
“You can’t scout just one person,” Mincy said.
Mincy is the team’s lone senior, a player who overcame two knee surgeries to fulfill her promise as a former high school All-American.
She said the opening rounds will bring powerful emotions, because they will be her last games in College Park. But she promised the team would push aside such thoughts and show up Tuesday, ready to grind through preparations for New Mexico State.
Frese’s sister, Marsha, coaches against the Aggies in the Western Athletic Conference. “Maybe I’ll get a good scouting report,” the Maryland coach said with a laugh.