Big Ten champion Maryland women's basketball team react after learning who they will play in the NCAA tournament. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — The Maryland women's basketball team lived through a summer that could rock the steadiest ship.
Leading scorer Laurin Mincy graduated; everyone expected that. But then, less than two months after the Terps competed in a second straight Final Four, point guard Lexie Brown abruptly transferred — to longtime rival Duke, no less. Coach Brenda Frese's top two assistants also left to become head coaches at other universities.
A team that seemed certain to be a top five choice in preseason polls for 2015-2016 suddenly found itself in tumult.
Almost a year later, with another NCAA tournament looming, Frese grins at the memory of it all.
"I love it," she says, referring to the challenge of raising a new team from the ashes of a previous one. "It's my favorite part of the job."
Frese can smile because her team has found its way back to a familiar, lofty place — No. 5 in the national polls, Big Ten champions again, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, which begins Saturday afternoon in College Park.
The Terps whooped and cheered Monday evening as they learned they'll host Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Iona in the first round. If the bracket holds, an Elite Eight match-up with No. 1 seed Notre Dame could be on tap in Lexington, Ky.
Maryland's 30-3 season testifies to a steady group of personalities who arrive early and ready to work day after day. But it also speaks to the depth of what Frese has built at Maryland, in terms both of talent and of a collective belief in where the program is headed. This year's NCAA appearance will be her 12th in 14 seasons at Maryland.
"She is the mother of her family, but she's also the mother of the program, and the girls feel that every day," says assistant coach Shay Robinson. "Anytime adversity hits, you go back to your comfort zone, and Brenda has been that comforting figure for this program for 14 years. They didn't lose faith in her and they didn't stop believing in her."
"One of the things that has brought us together, and Coach B harps on it, is just being comfortable with being uncomfortable," says junior center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen), the team's second-leading scorer. "Change is going to happen, so just embrace it and move forward."
Frese has coped with the departures of many great players and valued assistants over the years, and she acknowledges that every transition raises a new set of questions and anxieties.
"My approach was for us to roll with the punches, always adapt to change, even welcome change and be comfortable feeling uncomfortable," she says. "But you don't know with 18- to 23-year-olds if they're going to buy it, believe it and do it. You don't know."
This particular group confronted change as if it were executing a corporate takeover — deadly serious. Where previous Maryland teams might have goofed off in the locker room or stretched the boundaries of on-time departures for road trips, these women invariably showed up 10 minutes early or nagged coaches to sit for extra film sessions.
"I'll have optional shootouts, and they're not optional, because everyone is there," Frese says.
No one embodied this businesslike spirit more than the team's best player, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
"We couldn't get distracted," says the fleet-footed junior from Pennsylvania. "I knew it would be easy to get distracted."
The team didn't require emotional meetings or admonitions to stay the course, players say. Its sense of purpose grew naturally.
"When you lose as much as we did in as short a time as we did, there's a lot you have to kind of fill in," says senior guard Brene Moseley. "But the foundation of what we have is pretty stable, so it's not as hard as people maybe think it would be."
Maryland's crash course in change began just two days after the Terps lost to Connecticut in last year's national semifinals.
Frese's top two assistants, Tina Langley and Marlin Chinn, left to take top jobs, Langley at Rice and Chinn at Florida International. (Chinn was recently fired after one of his players accused him of sexual harassing her and lending her $600.)
Assistant coaches don't receive much attention, but Langley had been with Frese for seven years and Chinn for six. They had helped recruit and train every player who would contribute to the 2015-2016 team.
Brown's transfer in late May, attributed to homesickness, was an even bigger jolt. The daughter of former NBA star Dee Brown seemed destined to finish her career as one of Frese's greatest players. As a sophomore, she was Maryland's floor leader, playing the most minutes, dishing the most assists and making the most 3-pointers. She was also a polished spokeswoman for the program.
"Initially, it was a blow," Frese says. "Nobody can predict you're going to lose a two-year starting point guard to a transfer. And then you look at all the offseason changes, of assistants becoming head coaches and the new hirings — a lot was in flux."
Brown's former teammates don't say a whole lot when her name comes up.
"You never want to see anybody leave," Moseley says. "We all look out for each other, we're all family here, so you never want to watch one of your sisters leave. But we've faced a lot of adversity, even before that. You don't want to go through it, but it makes us stronger as a unit."
Frese was particularly struck by the way Jones and Walker-Kimbrough responded to the loss of their classmate, with whom they had been so closely linked over two years at Maryland.
"It doesn't change what we do here," she says, describing her best players' reaction. "We work. We win."
So how do you lose your top two scorers and end up scoring more points and winning games by a larger average margin?
For Maryland, the answer is that every significant contributor raised her production.
Jones and Walker-Kimbrough were all-conference players as sophomores, but both have increased their playing time, their scoring averages and their shooting accuracy to the point that they might be the best inside-outside duo in the country.
Frese challenged Walker-Kimbrough in the offseason, telling her she'd be the target of every team's best defender.
"It was spread around last year, and we didn't know if she'd be ready for it," the coach says. "But she's just blown that out of the water."
If a game is drifting sideways and the Terps desperately need a basket, all eyes turn to Walker-Kimbrough.
"She's the life, the energy," Moseley says. "She's able to get us going by herself, and that's hard."
Jones, meanwhile, is the team's old reliable. The 6-foot-3 junior from Havre de Grace draws packs of defenders in the middle, leaving teammates ample space to shoot from outside. She scores like a well-tuned watch, seemingly unfazed by the bodies crashing around her.
"I like to make sure everybody knows I'm bringing the same thing every day," Jones says.
"She's the person who holds everything together," Moseley says of Jones.
But it's hardly all about the stars. Seniors Moseley and Tierney Pfirman and sophomore sharpshooter Kristen Confroy have all doubled their scoring averages. Bubbly senior Malina Howard acts as the team's defensive captain and chief lifter of spirits.
"When she's on the floor, I feel like she's talking to me," Walker-Kimbrough says of Howard. "And I'm always in the right spot when she's talking to me."
Moseley, known to her teammates and coaches as "Bones," is the wise old head of the group. More than three years after a knee injury wiped out her sophomore season, she's Maryland's third leading scorer and a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which recognizes the nation's top point guard. In five years, she's pretty much seen it all.
"I just try to be the stability," Moseley says.
Perhaps fittingly, this team drew its greatest confidence from a loss — 83-73 to mighty Connecticut at Madison Square Garden. No one has played the undefeated Huskies tighter this season, and Frese says the Dec. 28 game "gave us a good snapshot of who we were going to be."
Frese has not had to resort to radical tactics in a season she describes as one of her most satisfying. Sure, she told the Terps they'd brought shame to the craft of basketball after a sloppy Feb. 25 home win against Wisconsin. But that was basic fine tuning, a reminder that Maryland can't afford any letups come tournament time.
Frese believes her team is primed for another deep run, both because of its dogged nature and because so many of the key players have been to the past two Final Fours.
"They understand pressure that you just can't simulate in a practice," she says. "I think that gives them great confidence when they get into other situations."
With the nation's No. 1 recruiting class on the way to College Park, the Terps will reload again next year. The ship will sail on, rough waters or no.
There's an image from this year's team that sticks in Frese's mind. The Terps trailed Michigan State at halftime in the Big Ten championship game and had played an ugly 20 minutes of basketball. It was the type of performance that could fray a weak-minded team.
Instead, the coach watched Moseley and fellow senior guard Chloe Pavlech walk to the locker room with their arms draped over each other's shoulders. Neither would let the other go forward unsupported.