Shortly before the 10th-ranked Maryland women’s basketball team was to begin practice earlier this week, junior forward Alyssa Thomas had been bothered with a touch of stomach discomfort. Coach Brenda Frese didn’t think twice before telling the Terrapins’ most indispensable player to stay home and rest.
With eight players at her disposal, including a former walk-on and another who had been a member of the volleyball team, Frese nonetheless conducted practice without a hint of distress in advance of Friday’s ACC tournament quarterfinal against Wake Forest. It’s what she and her assistants have been doing almost all season, and by this time, Frese has become an authority on managing a severely reduced roster.
“Resilient. Without excuse. Just find a way. I think that’s Brenda,” said ESPN women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli, who regularly calls ACC tournament games. “She’s going to have a game plan, and she’s going to put it together, and she’s not going to make excuses. She’s just going to figure it out. They have been dealt a tough hand, and she didn’t complain.”
Certainly no one would begrudge Frese if she had lamented second-seeded Maryland’s improbable circumstances that began Oct. 21, when sophomore Brene Moseley tore her ACL in a scrimmage and was lost for the season. The first-team All-Met as a junior at Paint Branch was set to become the starting point guard, taking over for graduated Anjale Barrett.
A month later, starting shooting guard Laurin Mincy tore her ACL in a 90-71 victory over then-No. 19 Nebraska in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The junior, who was the Terrapins’ second leading scorer a year ago, also required surgery and won’t be back until next season.
In between those injuries, backup senior center Essence Townsend tore her ACL in practice, and a team that began the season with Final Four hopes was down to just eight players.
Frese, meantime, began to start freshman Chloe Pavlech by necessity at point guard and asked Thomas to handle the ball much more than she was accustomed to as a natural forward. Frese also gave Tierney Pfirman and Malina Howard, both freshmen, extended playing time and coaxed important minutes out of junior guard Sequoia Austin, who became a scholarship player midway through her freshman season.
Frese shortened practice times and reduced the number of practice days, preferring instead to allow her charges to recover in the midst of a rugged ACC schedule that had expanded to 18 games this season. And in spite of the calamity, the Terrapins were in contention for the regular season title until the final week, won at least 21 games for the ninth consecutive season under Frese and remained in the top 10 wire-to-wire.
As a result, Frese was named ACC coach of the year in a vote of her peers, the first time she has won the honor.
“Coach Frese is just amazing,” said Pavlech, who on Tuesday was selected to the ACC all-freshman team by reporters and school representatives. “Her qualities are just great. One thing she’s really harped is rest. Rest equals success, that type of thing. She understands that we are limited, like we don’t have a lot of players, and that it’s crucial for us to get our recovery and rest time. Her and the coaches always have a plan for us, and it’s been working so far.”
In-season injuries also compelled Frese to tinker with the rotation. Pfirman dislocated her kneecap Jan. 19, hours before the Terrapins were scheduled to board a plane bound for Atlanta to play Georgia Tech. Frese used seven players in the 66-57 win and leaned heavily on her starters, with none playing less than 33 minutes. Howard and Austin combined for just 21 minutes off the bench, but their playing time rose in subsequent weeks with Pfirman out for a month.
Roughly two weeks earlier, starting guard Katie Rutan was face down on the court at Carmichael Arena in Maryland’s 60-57 loss at then-No. 11 North Carolina. The junior transfer who sat out last season had broken her nose, but she came back three days later wearing a protective mask and scored 16 points, including hitting 4 of 6 from three-point range, at Clemson in an 80-40 victory.
“No matter who we lose or whatever, we’re a strong team,” said Howard, named to the all-freshman team in voting by ACC coaches. “We come together all the time, and I never had a lack of faith in us after losing anybody.”
That the depleted Terrapins must win three games in three days in Greensboro, N.C., to repeat as ACC tournament champions hasn’t fazed them either. Having Thomas, a two-time ACC player of the year, and all-conference senior forward Tianna Hawkins certainly helps, but the Terrapins also figure luck may be on their side this time after winning a coin flip Sunday night to become the No. 2 seed.
That was the last-resort tiebreaking procedure the ACC used because Maryland and North Carolina finished with identical 14-4 conference records and split their two meetings this season. The Terrapins won the rematch resoundingly, 85-59, primarily using six players.
“Sometimes when you allow yourself to reflect back on our graduation losses as well as the injuries, it’s amazing to see what this team has accomplished,” Frese said. “But obviously between the staff and the players, we’ve never looked in the past or used it as an excuse. We’ve always had the mentality of, ‘Let’s get better.’ If we have five players today, we’re going to get better today. That’s the mind-set we’ve had all season long, and as a result we’ve never had a pity party and had any excuses.”