From a rugged schedule to a slew of injuries, Maryland women’s basketball weathered the storm to remain one of the top teams in the country this season. Now, entering a first-round matchup against Delaware on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Terps feel confident and rejuvenated.
“Playing in the NCAA for the first time for a lot of those girls last year, and then we had a tough nonconference schedule this year, and then the Big Ten is competitive, I think all those aspects with the adversity and everything we’ve gone through this year has made us grow and it’s prepared us for this moment,” said senior guard Chloe Bibby, who was named second-team All-Big Ten.
After watching the NCAA Tournament get canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and being forced to play in a bubble in San Antonio last season, Maryland, a No. 4 seed, is excited to host first- and second-round games at the Xfinity Center for the first time since 2019.
“This was something that has been taken away from us the last two years, not being able to host,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “You work so hard during the regular season for this opportunity to have your fans in the stands, your kids sleeping in their beds and having that routine and being comfortable on your home court. We want to use this to our advantage.”
Maryland has shown it’s built to make a run in the tournament, securing four victories against ranked opponents during the regular season, including a 79-76 win over No. 2 seed Baylor (27-6). Meanwhile, the roster boasts three players who received Associated Press All-America honors. Sophomore forward Angel Reese (St. Frances), who was named to the third team, leads the Terps with 17.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and ranks first in the Big Ten in double-doubles (17).
Meanwhile, graduate student guard Katie Benzan (10.5 ppg) and junior guard Ashley Owusu (14 ppg) earned honorable mention. Owusu and fellow junior guard Diamond Miller, who led the team in scoring last season, are also rounding back into form after missing a significant chunk of the year with injuries.
The Terps, who are seeking their first national title since 2006, have dominated the first round over the years, securing a 15-3 record, but they haven’t been to the Final Four since 2015. Last season, Maryland advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, where it lost to Texas, 64-61.
This year’s bracket expanded to 68 teams for the first time to match the men’s field, with play-in games Wednesday and Thursday. Maryland was placed in the Spokane Region with top seed Stanford, which beat a depleted Maryland, 86-68, on Nov. 27 in the Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship. Should the Terps advance Friday, they’ll host the winner of the first-round game between No. 5 seed Virginia Tech (23-9) and No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast (29-2) on Sunday.
In addition to the bracket expanding, this will be the first year that women’s basketball will be using the NCAA’s trademarked “March Madness” brand and marketing. For Frese and the players, it’s a step in the right direction for gender equality — especially after last season’s bubble highlighted the stark differences between the accommodations for men’s and women’s programs.
“I think it’s cool,” Miller said. “It’s March, so why shouldn’t it be called March Madness like it is? We’re nothing different than the men’s side. And it should be equal. So I think this is a good start.”
Maryland (21-8, 13-4 Big Ten) will try to bounce back from a 62-51 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals March 4. The Terps, who lead the Big Ten in points per game (82.8) and rank second in 3-point percentage (.366), were held to 0-for-12 shooting from deep while converting just 31.4% of their field-goal attempts in their earliest conference tournament exit since joining the Big Ten in 2014.
Before losing to the Hoosiers, the Terps won eight of their last nine regular-season games. Maryland is entering Friday ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25 poll.
“That disappointing loss served as fuel for us to get back on the court,” Benzan said. “These two weeks have been hard, but we’re just excited to have another game come up. And I think we all feel ready for it.”
Delaware, a No. 13 seed, earned an NCAA Tournament bid after defeating Drexel, 63-59, in the Colonial Athletic Association championship. Senior guard/forward Jasmine Dickey (Catonsville) posted her 18th double-double (27 points and 18 rebounds) to help the Blue Hens (24-7, 15-3 CAA) clinch their first conference title since 2013.
Dickey, a two-time CAA Player of the Year, is the third-leading scorer in the country at 25.1 points per game and averages 10.2 rebounds while shooting 40.2% from the field.
“Jasmine Dickey is [a] special player that has put her team on her back,” Frese said. “Tremendous three-level scorer, obviously off the bounce she’s terrific. And then she goes to the glass hard. She’s a difficult matchup because she’s so athletic.”
Benzan said controlling the boards will be important when facing Dickey, who is the 14th-best offensive rebounder in the nation.
“Rebounding is a testament of effort,” Benzan said. “[Dickey’s] motor is incredible. So we have to match her motor and keep working. The harder-working team will win this game tomorrow. So we have to make sure that’s us.”
NCAA Tournament first round
NO. 13 SEED DELAWARE@NO. 4 SEED MARYLAND
Friday, 5 p.m.