Shortly before the 10th-ranked Maryland women's basketball team was to begin practice the other afternoon, junior forward Alyssa Thomas was bothered by a touch of stomach discomfort. Coach Brenda Frese didn't think twice before telling the Terps' most indispensable player to stay home and rest.
With only eight healthy players, including a former walk-on and another who had been a member of the university's volleyball team, Frese nonetheless conducted practice without a hint of distress in advance of tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals. It's what she and her assistants have been doing virtually all season anyway, and by now, Frese has become an authority on managing a severely reduced roster.
"Resilient. Without excuse. Just find a way. I think that's Brenda," ESPN women's basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said. "She's going to have a game plan, and she's going to put it together, and she's not going to make excuses. She's just going to figure it out. They have been dealt a tough hand, and she didn't complain."
Certainly no one would begrudge Frese if she had lamented second-seeded Maryland's improbable circumstances. On Oct. 21, sophomore Brene Moseley tore an anterior cruciate ligament in a scrimmage and was lost for the season. Moseley was set to become the starting point guard, taking over for the graduated Anjalé Barrett.
A month later, starting shooting guard Laurin Mincy tore an ACL in a 90-71 victory over then-No. 19 Nebraska in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The junior, the Terps' second-leading scorer a year ago, also required surgery and won't be back until next season.
In between those injuries, backup senior center Essence Townsend tore an ACL in practice, and a Final Four-minded team that started with 11 players had dwindled to eight.
Frese, meantime, began to start freshman Chloe Pavlech by necessity at point guard and asked Thomas to handle the ball more than she was accustomed to as a natural forward. Frese also gave Tierney Pfirman and Malina Howard, both freshmen, extended playing time and coaxed important minutes out of junior guard Sequoia Austin, who became a scholarship player midway through her freshman season.
Frese shortened practice times and reduced the number of practice days, preferring instead to allow her charges to recover in the midst of a rugged ACC schedule that had expanded to 18 games this season. And in spite of everything, the Terps were in contention for the regular-season title until the final week, won at least 21 games for the ninth consecutive season under Frese and remained in the top 10 wire to wire.
"Coach Frese is just amazing," said Pavlech, who was selected to the ACC All-Freshman team Tuesday by media and school representatives. "Her qualities are just great. One thing's she really harped is rest. Rest equals success, that type of thing. She understands that we are limited — like, we don't have a lot of players, and that it's crucial for us to get our recovery and rest time. Her and the coaches always have a plan for us, and it's been working so far."
In-season injuries also compelled Frese to tinker with the rotation. Pfirman dislocated her kneecap Jan. 19, hours before the Terps were scheduled to board a plane bound for Atlanta to play Georgia Tech the following afternoon. Frese used seven players in the 66-57 win and leaned heavily on her starters, with none playing less than than 33 minutes. Howard and Austin combined for just 21 minutes off the bench, but their playing time rose in subsequent weeks as Pfirman sat out.
Roughly two weeks earlier, starting guard Katie Rutan was face down on the court at Carmichael Arena in Maryland's 60-57 loss to then-No. 11 North Carolina. The junior transfer had broken her nose, but she came back three days later wearing a protective mask and scored 16 points, going 4-for-6 from 3-point range, at Clemson in an 80-40 victory.
"No matter who we lose or whatever, we're a strong team," said Howard, who was named to the All-Freshman team in voting by ACC coaches. "We come together all the time, and I never had a lack of faith in us after losing anybody."
That the depleted Terps must win three games in three days in Greensboro, N.C., to repeat as ACC tournament champions and claim an 11th title hasn't fazed them either. Having Thomas, a two-time ACC Player of the Year, and All-ACC senior forward Tianna Hawkins certainly helps, but the Terps also figure luck might be on their side this time after winning a coin flip Sunday night to become the No. 2 seed.
That was the ACC's last-resort tiebreaker after Maryland and North Carolina finished with identical conference records and split head-to-head. The Terps won the rematch resoundingly, 85-59, using primarily six players.
"Sometimes when you allow yourself to reflect back on our graduation losses as well as the injuries, it's amazing to see what this team has accomplished," Frese said. "But obviously, between the staff and the players, we've never looked in the past or used it an excuse. We've always had the mentality of, 'Let's get better.' If we have five players today, we're going to get better today. That's the mindset we've had all season long, and as a result we've never had a pity party and had any excuses."