Less than 24 hours after the Maryland men’s basketball team learned it wouldn’t be playing another game this season, the Terps women sat on the edge of their seats Monday night wondering about a more innocuous question: How long could they manage to stay at home?
Not as long as they might have hoped. For the first time since 2010, when Maryland last missed the NCAA tournament, the Terps will open the NCAA tournament on the road, playing Friday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C.
Maryland (25-7) received the No. 5 seed in the Kansas City, Mo., regional — one seed line short of a guaranteed home game in the tournament’s opening weekend — and will play No. 12 seed Princeton (24-5), the Ivy League champion. The winner advances to face No. 4 North Carolina State or No. 13 Elon on Sunday, with the round-of-32 victor likely taking on top-seeded Mississippi State.
“All we've talked about is whether we were going to be home or on the road,” said coach Brenda Frese, who had to wait until the final 16-team region was revealed to learn where the Terps would begin their eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance. “We're fine and we're prepared. So for us, it's just playing Maryland basketball. For us to win and advance, we have to play Maryland basketball. I know this team will be motivated to do that.”
The last time Maryland and Princeton met in the Big Dance, there were similar seeding questions, only they were about the Tigers. In the second round of the 2015 tournament, the Terps faced a Princeton team that had gone undefeated in the regular season and received only the eighth seed.
With Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both graduates of the Ivy League school, in Princeton’s Xfinity Center cheering section for the night, top-seeded Maryland got 27 points from senior Laurin Mincy in a comfortable 85-70 win.
While these Terps aren’t as potent as that Final Four-bound squad, neither are these Tigers. Princeton went 12-2 in conference play this season and demolished Pennsylvania, 63-34, in the tournament final Sunday, but lost by 20 in December to Rutgers. Maryland won both its meetings against the Scarlet Knights this season by a combined 48 points.
“All I know is, coming out of the Ivy League, obviously, a very prestigious academic school,” senior guard Kristen Confroy said. “I'd imagine they're pretty sophisticated in their outlook on basketball and I'm sure they share the ball really well. So we're just looking to go out there and play to our standard.”
For the first time since joining the league in 2014, the Terps didn’t sweep the Big Ten Conference championships this year, finishing behind Ohio State in the regular season and falling to the Buckeyes in the March 4 title game. A late-season slide marred by consecutive losses to Purdue, Minnesota and Michigan cost Maryland its regular-season-title defense, but an earlier 14-point home loss to Michigan State might have ultimately pushed the host Wolfpack (No. 17 in the Rating Percentage Index) ahead of the Terps (No. 18) in the NCAA tournament picture.
“I didn't really care about what seed we are, because at the end of the day, people got to come out to play when they come out to play against Maryland,” senior wing Ieshia Small said. “So the relief was more just to know what bracket we're in, who we're playing against, and it was like: ‘OK, now I know it's time to strap up and get ready to play.’ ”
Given Maryland’s somewhat disappointing past two NCAA tournament appearances, the underdog role might better suit the Terps. In 2016, Maryland was stunned in College Park by seventh-seeded Washington, which found its way through a wide-open bracket to the Final Four. Last season, the second-seeded Terps lost to No. 10 seed Oregon in the Sweet 16, one game short of a rematch with eventual national champion Connecticut.
That defeat marked the dawn of an offseason of change for Maryland, which lost All-America seniors Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to graduation and top freshman point guard Destiny Slocum to a transfer. Despite a thin bench and a season-ending injury to starting wing Blair Watson, the Terps entered Monday night confident they would play at least one more game, and be favored to play at least two.
So when Maryland’s name popped up next to a No. 5 seed on the selection show, the players inside Xfinity Center cheered anyway. They were sad to be leaving College Park, sure, but happier to spend another week together.
“I appreciate this night every single year because I don't ever want to take it for granted,” Frese said. “I know how many teams sit on the bubble of not getting in. I've had teams that haven't got in, and fortunately, not a lot. But I always want to appreciate the hard work that goes into having a night like tonight.”