COLLEGE PARK — Even before the unexpected Final Four run, before they said goodbye to the brilliant Alyssa Thomas, Brenda Frese had the precocious trio thinking ahead.
She didn't need to say much. They knew, from staring at the jerseys in the rafters, how one set of stars had always handed the fate of the Maryland women's basketball program to the next. But Frese called them into her office toward the end of last season and laid it out plain: Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough would take the baton from Thomas, the program's all-time leading scorer.
"I brought them in and I told them the same way Alyssa has to carry the team every night, they're going to have to carry the team every night next season," Frese recalled after a recent afternoon practice. "Credit to them, they've understood and they've wanted it. They've wanted the pressure, the responsibility, the expectations."
Those expectations were plenty high, despite the departure of Thomas, a Swiss army knife of a player who led Maryland in points and rebounds and nearly in assists. She also was the one to jump on the younger players in the huddle, even before Frese could get to them. But with Thomas gone to the WNBA's Connecticut Sun, the pollsters still put the Terps in the preseason top 10.
They've actually exceeded expectations in their first season in the Big Ten. They're 20-2, undefeated in conference and riding a 14-game winning streak that has them at No. 5 in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls. They'll welcome No. 19 Nebraska to Xfinity Center at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Sophomores Brown, Jones and Walker-Kimbrough have combined with senior Laurin Mincy — finally 100 percent healthy after a second anterior cruciate ligament tear two seasons ago — to fill the void left by Thomas. The Terps no longer run through one first-team All-American. They're a four-headed hydra that rarely strikes opponents the same way from one game to the next.
The quartet of leading scorers all average between 12 and 14 points per game. Last year, Brown was the only player other than Thomas to average double digits.
"Everyone knew we would have to step up," said Walker-Kimbrough, a slashing wing scorer from Pennsylvania. "Because Alyssa was such a dominant player, we knew no one person could do it. She was just unique in what she did. But we knew that collectively, we could do what she did."
Don't get them wrong. They loved playing with one of the program's all-time greats. But this is fun in a different way.
"Now, we really don't have a focal point," said Brown, the point guard from Georgia who seemed to have the self-possession of a senior the moment she stepped on campus. "Which is great. I prefer it this way. Other teams can't really key on one person to stop us. To have so many people who can do so many things, it makes the game come way easier, and it's a lot of fun."
The team's motto is "United We Stand," and the players formed that collective spirit in the spring and summer, when they were all dying together as they ran steps at the arena.
It's easy to forget, given the excitement of their Final Four trip, but last season did not end the way the Terps wanted. They were smashed by 26 by a Notre Dame team they'd played tough earlier in the season.
"I think they were stunned," Frese said of her players. "We had gone on such a roll that I don't think they thought it was going to end against Notre Dame. I think they were stunned in terms of how they got beat, but credit the mentality. In terms of how we went into our spring and our summer workouts, you could tell there wasn't a mentality of, 'We're going to rest on our laurels. We're a Final Four team.' They wanted to get back. They wanted to do more."
Brown acknowledged there were moments during early workouts when she looked around and saw no Thomas, no Alicia DeVaughn, no Katie Rutan and thought, "Wow, they're really gone."
But the feeling was long past by the time the Terps began play this season.
They have only one senior now, the long-suffering Mincy, whom Walker-Kimbrough affectionately called "Grandma."
Mincy was a McDonald's All-American out of New Jersey, just as highly touted as her classmate, Thomas. They both starred as Maryland sophomores. But after blowing out her left knee before her senior year of high school, Mincy felt her right give out during a game in November 2012. Athletic trainers put her on an exercise bike and she couldn't get her leg around for even one rotation. She pretty well knew she'd torn another ACL.
Mincy missed the remainder of that season and never felt fully recovered last season, though she became a key contributor off the bench.
"Laurin Mincy and her injuries," Brown said with a teasing eye roll as her senior pal looked on.
It's no longer an uncomfortable subject for humor. Because this season, Mincy's first step is back, and she trusts her ability to slide back and forth when defending the other team's best scorer.
"It's just awesome to be able to see Laurin 100 percent," Frese said. "You can see it in her first step to the basket, defensively locking people down, running the floor and slashing. Really, her whole game is back."
The naturally-quiet senior also has gotten used to younger players looking her way for assurance.
"But it doesn't have to be me who speaks up," Mincy said. "If someone sees something I don't see, it's good for everybody to voice an opinion. … I feel a lot of times they look at me and [Brene Moseley]. [Brene] is the energy person."
Walker-Kimbrough and Mincy are the leading scorers from the wing. Brown is the chief ballhandler and, in Frese's words, the one who "feels the pulse of the team." That leaves Jones, the 6-foot-3 sophomore from Havre de Grace who has matured into one of the toughest rebounders and most efficient inside scorers in the Big Ten. The Aberdeen High alumna has grabbed 13 or more rebounds seven times in conference play.
Add it all up and you get a team that has blitzed its new league. The Terps stars say they've loved playing in the Big Ten, where they've noticed more raucous home-state allegiances than they saw in their Atlantic Coast Conference opponents.
They were snowed in for a night on their first road trip to Nebraska — "We were like, 'Wow, this is how it's going to be," Brown joked — but generally, they'll take a charged environment in the cold over a lax crowd in Miami.
For Frese, an Iowa native, the trips have been like a tour of her Midwestern youth, with visits from former players, old Amateur Athletic Union teammates and professors she befriended at previous coaching stops.
This season hasn't been without its travails. The Terps lost by 20 to Notre Dame in December, so they've yet to slay that dragon. They shot poorly at Minnesota and didn't break a tie with the Gophers until the last few seconds.
But generally, the season has begun as well as anyone could have hoped. Is another Final Four in the offing? The players and Frese don't want to touch that one just yet, though they clearly harbor big goals.
Once upon a time, the coach watched her 2006 national champions go from talk of a dynasty to out in the second round in 2007.
"Because she lived through that, it's one of the things she's always telling us," Brown said. "You guys cannot get complacent."