When the Maryland women’s basketball team rolls into San Antonio seeking its second NCAA tournament crown, it’ll do so with something to prove.
No. 2 seed or not, the Terps are aiming for the trophy.
The NCAA named Maryland (24-2) the No. 2 seed in the “Hemisfair” region for the San Antonio “bubble” tournament set to begin Sunday. This is the eighth time the Terps have earned a No. 2 seed — the first since 2016 — and the 13th time they’ve been seeded No. 2 or higher.
“We like our bracket,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “We’re ready for anyone we face.”
Though she feels humble to be selected and to have the opportunity to play in the tournament, redshirt freshman Mimi Collins said she knew there was some conversation about Maryland being named a No. 1 seed, and there was: both from the fingertips of Twitter users and from the mouths of experts such as ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson, who said “this is a No. 1 seed” during Maryland’s play in the Big Ten tournament this past week.
“You can sleep on us all day, but numbers don’t lie. Stats don’t lie. When you watch us on TV, film doesn’t lie,” Collins said. “We’re just going to continue to be humble and hungry. As the future goes, as everybody watches the tournament — don’t sleep on Maryland.”
Maryland, which defended its Big Ten tournament title Saturday against Iowa, 104-84, will take on No. 15 seed Mount St. Mary’s in a true intrastate battle on Monday at 4 p.m. on ESPN.
This is the first NCAA tournament berth for the Mountaineers since 1995. Mount St. Mary’s (17-6) routed Wagner, 70-38, on Sunday in the conference title game to secure its fourth overall tournament championship. Led by redshirt senior guard Kendall Bresee, the conference’s Player and Defensive Player of the Year, and senior center Rebecca Lee, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, the Mountaineers overcame two coronavirus-related pauses and the departures of two key players to end a 26-year NCAA tournament drought.
Maryland initially planned to play Mount St. Mary’s during its nonconference schedule, until coronavirus issues among the Mountaineers spoiled that.
“It’s amazing how it’s worked out, to be able to now see them all the way in San Antonio,” Frese said.
“We were supposed to play Maryland this year, and we were excited to scout somebody new, and I think we kind of jinxed it because now we’re scouting somebody that we’ve already scouted,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Maria Marchesano said. “It’s obviously going to be a huge challenge for us, but our ladies are definitely up for it. We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what they’ve done since then and hopefully get prepared to play a big game down there.”
Beginning Monday, the Terps, who enter the tournament on a 13-game winning streak, hope to resurrect what they never even got to begin in 2020. Though experts regarded last year’s Maryland squad as a serious tournament contender, too, the burgeoning pandemic forced the 2020 NCAA tournament’s cancellation before anyone even learned their seed selection.
The Big Ten royals have earned 27 bids to the NCAA tournament in their history, including each of the past 16, with a 46-26 (63.9%) success rate. Under Frese’s hand, that number improves: the Terps won 70.8% of those March and April games (34-14).
This year’s Maryland team padded its resume this past weekend to be considered one of the greatest Terps squads to ever roam Xfinity Center; its record-breaking total of 104 points secured Maryland’s fifth Big Ten tournament crown since joining the conference for the 2014-15 season and comes just a week after cutting the nets down for their sixth regular season title in seven years.
Arguments could be easily made to have named Maryland as a No. 1 seed, which were doled out to UConn (24-1), Stanford (25-2), NC State (23-3) and South Carolina (22-4). The Terps led the nation in scoring all year long, and are currently averaging 91.3 points per game. Though preseason polls marked Maryland as an upper-middle program in the Big Ten, National Coach of the Year Frese took two transfers — Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby — and an influx of first-year players — Angel Reese and Mimi Collins — and married their talents with sophomores Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller to create one of the most dangerous teams on any court at any time.
Owusu and Miller themselves built tremendously upon their freshman performances. No one exemplified Frese’s assessment of her consistently unselfish squad more than Owusu, who tallied 151 assists. She perhaps single-handedly saved Maryland’s quarterfinal win against No. 8 seed Nebraska by scoring 22 points and converting 10 of 11 free throws. She leads the squad in scoring too, with 18.3 points a game.
Miller also proved herself as a veritable defense threat, often tasked with marking opponents’ star players, such as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, and more than doubled her scoring average this winter (17.2) as she took on more of a leadership role.
Frese believes her Terps are playing their best basketball right now and peaking at the right time.
Reese, the star freshman from St. Frances, shared the same feelings as her coach: the team that battled through the fires of pandemic, serious injuries and roster turnover together and emerged like phoenixes, ready to take on the tournament.
“That was super fun,” said the Baltimore native, who experienced the selection show for the first time after missing several weeks with a foot injury. “I’m really happy, especially with the group we’re with. I wouldn’t rather be with anybody else.”
Pac-12 teams have spoiled the Terps’ dreams like Trojan Horses, sliding in to knock them out of three of the past four NCAA tournaments. Frese doesn’t believe in what some call the “Pac-12 curse,” though, no matter how good she knows No. 3 seed UCLA is. If both the Bruins (16-5) and Terps win their first two games, they’ll meet.
“It’s matchups. Every team is different, personnel-based. The team we have this season is different than any other team we’ve had,” Frese said. “It doesn’t come down to a conference or what that looks like. It comes down to each individual team and what that looks like season to season. I know where our strengths lie.”
They’ve been battle-tested this season, Frese said. The NCAA also placed six other Big Ten teams in the tournament, the coach noted, which “speaks volumes” of the vitality of their own conference.
“This competition [got] us ready for NCAAs,” the coach said.
Many have noted, and often celebrated, the youth of Maryland’s roster this season; other than Benzan, Bibby and Styles, the floor is ruled by freshmen and sophomores.
But Frese remembers a similar squad, 15 years ago, in which a freshman named Kristi Toliver landed a 3-pointer to win that year’s national campionship.
“They just play the right way. Basketball is basketball. We found that in ’06, when age was just a number,” Frese said, calling back to the phrase she gave the night Maryland won in 2006. “If you know how to play this game, which this team does, great things are in store for them.”
While every NCAA men’s basketball tournament game will be played in Indiana, with attendance sharply limited, a similar arrangement is in place for the women’s tournament in and around San Antonio in South Texas. The regions are named after San Antonio landmarks — Mercado, Hemisfair, River Walk and Alamo.
On the women’s side, the NCAA will allow a capacity of up to 17% at each venue from the Sweet Sixteen to the Final Four. Games taking place for the first two rounds will limit attendance to team guests.
In each case, attendees must wear face coverings, while cleaning and disinfecting efforts will be emphasized at venues in keeping with COVID-19 safety protocols. The NCAA said it acted in conjunction with local health officials for each tournament.
The 64-team tournament will hold first-round games beginning March 21. The Final Four will be held in the Alamodome in San Antonio on April 2, followed by the national championship game on April 4.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
NCAA tournament first round
NO. 2 SEED MARYLAND VS. NO. 15 SEED MOUNT ST. MARY’S
Monday, 4 p.m.