The Maryland women's basketball team's path to a third Final Four in four years features a familiar and daunting obstacle.
Because the Connecticut women’s basketball team has not lost a game since seven months before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, the unspoken but widely acknowledged hope inside Xfinity Center on Monday night was that Maryland would earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament anywhere but the Huskies-friendly Bridgeport regional.
Just a half-region into ESPN’s tournament selection show, the Terps were left to wonder what they did to deserve not only a spot in top-seeded Connecticut’s quadrant of the bracket but, more alarmingly, the No. 3 seed as well. A Big Ten Conference regular-season championship, a league tournament title, just two losses — and it wasn’t enough for Maryland to be the selection committee’s favorite to even face the four-time defending champions in the regional final.
“It’s disappointing because we felt like we controlled our destiny, and what we did was win,” said coach Brenda Frese, whose Terps will face 14-seed Bucknell on Friday at noon in College Park in their opening-round game, televised on ESPN2. “And so to go 30-2, to be ranked top four in the country, I’m not sure I’ve seen from the men’s or the women’s side a team ranked top four in the country and receive a 3-seed.”
Aside from UConn, Notre Dame, Baylor and South Carolina received the three other top seeds, which was no surprise. But at least one prominent analyst expected Maryland to avoid Connecticut's regional and stay on the second-seed line.
In his final projection Sunday, ESPN’s Charlie Creme had the Terps headed to Lexington, Ky., seeded behind only the Fighting Irish. Maryland would have been expected to face volatile but talented Tennessee in the College Park regional before a possible reunion with No. 3 seed Washington, which knocked the Terps out last season in the round of 32. At least that was better than the alternative.
Instead, Maryland's road to Dallas, site of the Final Four, begins with a game against an opponent that hasn't lost in more than a month. After that lurks the Big 12 Conference tournament champion.
Host Bucknell held off Navy in overtime Sunday in the Patriot League tournament final, 79-71, the Bison’s 11th straight win. They last lost Feb. 4, to Holy Cross.
The other of College Park’s two games Friday pits No. 6 seed West Virginia, which stunned top-seeded Baylor in the final of the Big 12 Conference tournament, against No. 11 seed Elon, the Colonial Athletic Association champion. The winner advances to Sunday’s round-of-32 matchup at Xfinity Center.
“For my last four years here, Coach has said, ‘Just ignore it,’” senior guard ShatoriWalker-Kimbrough said of the Terps’ seeding. “You’re just going to get angry because you probably think you deserved the No. 1 overall seed. I don’t ever look at it.”
Even before Maryland’s first step toward what became the team’s third straight Big Ten regular-season title, the Terps’ tournament resume seemed subject to scrutiny. A close-fought late-December loss to the Huskies — owners of a 107-game winning streak that dates to November 2014 — showed the team could be a challenger to the throne. Which was important, because little else on Maryland’s schedule did.
The other highlights of the Terps’ non-conference slate: a win at Louisville (No. 11 in the Rating Percentage Index) and neutral-site wins against Arizona State (No. 34 RPI) and Washington State (No. 101 RPI). Even as Maryland secured its third 30-win season in five years, the teams around the state did Frese no favors. Of the five Maryland-based teams the Terps faced, UMBC (No. 212 RPI) was rated highest.
Given an underwhelming Big Ten and a regular-season loss to Ohio State, and Maryland finished No. 16 overall in the RPI. Its No. 117-ranked strength of schedule was a far outlier among the country’s top teams.
“We kind of saw it coming with a lot of the projections early,” senior center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) said. “We knew the NCAA was unhappy with our strength of schedule. So once again, it’s something that is not ideal, but we can’t control it.”
While the Terps would have to win an Elite Eight game against UConn before they could begin to dream of earning the program’s first national title since 2006, another tantalizing reunion might await one step back, in the Sweet 16.
Behind the Huskies in the Bridgeport regional is No. 2 seed Duke. Leading the Blue Devils is a familiar face: guard Lexie Brown. A first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and the league’s fourth-highest scorer, Brown transferred from Maryland after the Terps’ last Final Four run, in 2015.
Brown arrived in College Park with Walker-Kimbrough and Jones, the Terps’ pair of All-Americans. She might get a chance to send them home one last time. And if not her, well, there’s always UConn.
“Absolutely, it’s a tough road, but I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” junior guard Kristen Confroy said. “Moving forward, we’re just going to keep trying to be the best we can be and hope that all of our hard work through the offseason, every day through this season is going to be good enough to get to where we want to be.”
Note: An earlier verison of this story incorrectly identified Gonzaga as the No. 11 seed in the Bridgeport regional. Gonzaga is the No. 11 seed in the Oklahoma City regional.