TAMPA, FLA. — Brenda Frese made no bones about it when she arrived in College Park 13 years ago.
She wanted to do more than run a solid, winning program. Maryland needed to be among the very best in women's college basketball.
"What I'm excited about is can we maintain a level of consistency at a really, really elite level," she said recently. "When I came to Maryland, that was the vision."
By almost any measure, Frese has succeeded as she prepares to coach in her third Final Four on Sunday night. She's guided the Terps to five 30-win seasons, 11 NCAA tournaments and the 2006 national championship. This year's team has been her most consistent, going undefeated in the Big Ten, tying the program record with 34 wins overall and making a second straight Final Four.
Only a handful of programs can match Maryland's achievements during Frese's tenure. And yet when it comes to women's basketball, there's another level entirely, one represented solely by Maryland's semifinal opponent — the Connecticut Huskies.
The Huskies don't merely expect to win. They expect to smash opponents by 20 points or more. They don't merely expect to make the Final Four, which they've done eight straight times. They expect to win the national title. Every single year.
As good as Maryland has been, Las Vegas oddsmakers listed the Terps as 23-point underdogs once the match-up was set. And no one thought that particularly strange.
So why did Maryland players carry such big grins this week as they spoke of the task ahead? Well, it's simple: They want what UConn has. And whipping the existing monarch is the surest path to the throne.
"Who doesn't want to beat Goliath in the end?" said Maryland's lone senior, Laurin Mincy.
Maryland's sophomore point guard, Lexie Brown, recalled an interview in which Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said opponents should be invigorated, not intimidated, by the prospect of playing his juggernaut. She liked his reasoning, because it matched hers exactly.
"We knew when we saw the brackets, when I saw Connecticut on our side, I said, 'This is amazing,'" she said. "Like I heard Geno say in that interview — people should be excited to play UConn. They shouldn't be scared or nervous."
For Frese, it's a chance to go against the guy who might be the best coach in the history of the women's game (Auriemma's only competition is former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt). She sounded just as up for it as her players, embracing the role of plucky underdog Saturday as she discussed UConn's dominance.
"Aren't we tired of it?" Frese said, laughing. "I think everybody's rooting for us. I think we're ready for some new stories. Our sport needs it to be quite honest."
Frese and Auriemma have competed for many recruits, and they're not exactly pals, though they are cordial. Early in Frese's tenure, she lured top forward Laura Harper to Maryland after Harper had verbally committed to UConn. Other coaches sniped about Frese's aggressive tactics in that period, but Auriemma said he respected her work ethic and charisma on the recruiting trail.
Frese said the relationship was warmer when she was still an assistant coach. "I think it changes, obviously, when you become a head coach and you're recruiting the same players," she said. "But he's always been nothing but great, cordial. After our 2006 national championship year, he had some really high praise."
Auriemma said Frese's standing as one of the sport's top coaches is undeniable.
"I don't think anybody's surprised that Maryland's here," he said. "I don't think they sneak up on anybody anymore. Her and her staff and their players, they just keep winning. It's not a one-time thing anymore. They just expect to win now, and so does everybody else expect them to win."
The Huskies lost to Stanford in November, a brief crack in the program's indomitability. But, since then, UConn's closest game was a 14-point victory over South Florida. The victims of this relentless basketball machine included fellow No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and South Carolina, the two teams that will meet in the other national semifinal.
Maryland can claim its own remarkable winning streak — 28 in a row now with the last loss coming against Notre Dame on December 3. But matched against UConn's absurd dominance, the Terps' achievement looks almost pedestrian.
And that's just this season. Since Auriemma first steered his program to the top of the women's game in 1995, the Huskies have reeled off 19 30-win seasons, made 15 Final Fours and won nine national championships. UConn's stars — Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore — rank among the brightest in the history of the sport.
UConn women's basketball now is the equivalent of UCLA men's basketball at the height of John Wooden's reign — one of the few true dynasties in American sports.
As Auriemma and his players described it, theirs is an excellence forged by the daily pressure of knowing they're everyone's biggest target.
"Everyone wants to beat us, yeah," said UConn star Breanna Stewart. "It comes with the territory."
"They thrive on it because they embrace it," Auriemma said of his players. "They want it. They want to be in that role. And we just kind of keep feeding into it as coaches. ... There's no shying away from it."
Maryland's players know all this of course. They've heard Maryland is 0-for-3 lifetime against the Huskies. A few of them were around for a 26-point pasting at UConn's hands in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Mincy and junior center Malina Howard were recruited by Auriemma.
They all understand what UConn means to the sport.
"It was a great opportunity," Mincy said, reflecting on Auriemma's attempts to sign her. "Who doesn't want to be recruited by the No. 1 team in the nation? The best players that have ever played have gone to UConn. But I was one of the few kids who wanted to beat UConn. I wanted to be one of the ones to knock them off the throne. That's ultimately why I chose Maryland."
She and her teammates said it over and over during the week — they don't believe they need a miracle to beat UConn. To their minds, it's one elite group of players against another.
The Huskies play fast, a style much more to the Terps' liking than the grinding slugfest they endured against Tennessee in the Spokane Regional final. But can Maryland's quartet of Mincy, Brown, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones go shot for shot with Auriemma's roster of All-Americans?
UConn forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is the best long-range shooter in the country. Guard Moriah Jefferson strips opposing ballhandlers almost three times per game and conducts the Huskies' fast break like a maestro. And then there's Stewart, a 6-foot-4 prodigy who might sink a 25-footer one possession and soar over an opposing center with her octopus arms on the next. She was named the Final Four's most outstanding player in each of her first two seasons.
They will be a difficult team to outscore. And Maryland surely must avoid the lapses of last year's national semifinal, when the Terps fell to Notre Dame by 26 points.
Maryland players say they won't be as awed by the setting this year, won't fall into the trap of being happy just to appear on the big stage.
They want to be one of the first programs that rolls off the tongue when people talk about women's basketball. And they know this is their chance.
"I think getting to back-to-back Final Fours definitely puts us in that conversation," Brown said. "But I think we have to win a championship first."